SAN DIEGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – At first glance, rheumatology may seem like the perfect specialty for physicians who don’t want to be bothered by medical emergencies. But the reality can be more complicated.

As Bharat Kumar, MD, explained to an audience at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, rheumatologists will at times encounter patients in urgent need of their care due to dire medical conditions. In these situations, he said, there may be no time for careful and cautious diagnostics.

“You have to have an awareness of how you think about things,” advised Dr. Kumar , a rheumatologist/immunologist and clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “During emergencies, you have to rely more on intuition to quickly get at answers.”

In a follow-up interview, Dr. Kumar described common rheumatologic emergencies, recalled his own scary encounter with a patient in crisis, and offered guidance about dealing with other physicians.

Q: When do rheumatologists have to deal with medical emergencies?

A: Rheumatology is considered mostly an outpatient specialty. Most of the time, rheumatologists don’t receive off-hour emergency calls.

But there are conditions in which rheumatologists have to be at the front lines in diagnosing and managing medical emergencies. These range from issues like septic arthritis to scleroderma renal crisis and vasculitis affecting vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys. These are more common at academic settings, but even rheumatologists in private practice should be aware of these conditions.

Q: How often do rheumatologists come across true emergencies in normal practice?

A: It depends on where the rheumatologist is practicing. In our academic setting, we have to see patients in the hospital several times per week.

Rarer are the emergencies that show up to clinic and require evaluation in the emergency department or hospitalization. Over the past year, that has happened perhaps three times to me.

This is likely much less in the private setting, where patients tend to be less sick and less complicated. But that is no guarantee that an emergency won’t crop up.

Q: What is the scariest emergency situation that you’ve come across?

A: It occurred when I entered a room to see a patient of mine with adult-onset Still’s disease.

She was huddled, shivering, barely answering questions. Her eyes were glazed. Her blood pressure was below 90/60 mm Hg, and her pulse was 130 beats per minute. I was petrified that she was in the midst of a cytokine storm secondary to either hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) or sepsis. Given the high mortality of both, we immediately called our colleagues in the emergency department and sent her for hospitalization. It turned out that she did have HLH, and we had to pursue intensive immunosuppression to abate that cytokine storm.

It was particularly scary because there is no good way to differentiate between the two conditions, apart from going with clinical intuition.

Treating a patient who is potentially septic with immunosuppression is extremely dangerous, and ultimately, we would not have known if our intuition was correct until the infection presented itself.

Fortunately, we were correct. She recovered after 1 week of hospitalization, and we have been following her since then. But it still gives me goosebumps to think, “What if we were wrong?”

Q: Do emergencies in rheumatology tend to appear suddenly or are they more likely to occur because of a long-standing and perhaps untreated condition?

A: While it is true that uncontrolled disease activity can predispose patients to emergencies, other emergencies can occur sporadically and out of the blue.

Many times, an emergency is the first manifestation of disease. The literature is littered with cases of renal crisis being the first manifestation of systemic sclerosis. And internists are often baffled by sudden kidney failure due to previously undiagnosed lupus.

In addition, all rheumatologists have great reverence for septic arthritis and know that it can mimic gout very closely. If a swollen joint is mistaken for gout instead of septic arthritis, this can lead to worsening infection and ultimately, loss of joint function.

Q: What are some potentially dire conditions that may test the diagnostic powers of rheumatologists?

A: Rheumatologists are becoming more aware of HLH. Because it may look clinically indistinguishable from severe infection but needs to be treated with immunosuppression instead of antimicrobial therapy, rheumatologists have to keep it in mind and revisit the diagnosis often in case patients are not improving on the prescribed therapy.

Pulmonary vasculitis is another concerning condition because an otherwise negligible cough can turn into massive pulmonary hemorrhage very quickly.

Q: Do you have tips about dealing with ER doctors, primary doctors and others who may be involved with an emergency?

A: Rheumatologists think differently from other specialists. We are cognitive specialists and think more in the long term. Emergency medicine doctors are more concerned about the short term and how to deal with more immediate issues.

Signposting concerns is essential to optimizing communication. Education of other physicians is also important because more frequently than not, patients with rheumatologic diseases present very differently.

Lastly, there’s a very fine line between advocating for patients and overstepping your bounds as a consultant rheumatologist. Maintaining close collaboration and establishing clear and open lines of communication can prevent this.

Dr. Kumar has no relevant disclosures.