Objective. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may be biologically reversible if treated in the first several months, yet it is unknown whether patients are diagnosed that early. We investigated the lag time between symptom onset and diagnosis of RA in a population with excellent access to rheumatology care. Methods. Using review of medical records, we evaluated all patients newly diagnosed as having RA from 1987 through 1990, at a health maintenance organization in central Massachusetts. Total lag time from symptom onset to first definite diagnosis was divided into medical encounter lag time (from symptom onset to first medical encounter) and diagnosis lag time (from first medical encounter to diagnosis). Results. The median total lag time was 36 weeks (range 4 weeks to > 10 years). The median medical encounter lag time was 4 weeks (not all patients included in the analysis). The median diagnosis lag time was 18 weeks. Diagnosis lag time was shorter for patients with progressive disease and positive rheumatoid factor on the initial test. Of 25 patients with symmetric arthritis and positive rheumatoid factor, only 5 (20%) were diagnosed within 2 months, and 10 (40%) were diagnosed more than 6 months after symptom onset. Conclusion. RA diagnosis is usually delayed for several months after symptoms begin, in large part because of delay in diagnosis by the physician. Thus, the goal of initiating treatment extremely early may be unrealistic for most patients.