The specialty of rheumatology takes care of people with disabling and long-term musculoskeletal conditions. For these patients, good healthcare requires the establishment of a sustainable partnership with healthcare professionals. For over two decades, rheumatology has been a frontrunner in piloting and implementing new kinds of partnerships in scientific research. In this viewpoint paper, we provide evidence for the leading role of rheumatology in developing strategies for engaging patients in research agenda setting, outcome research, developing treatment recommendations, assessing grant applications, conducting patient-centred research and transferring knowledge from research into practice. Experiences and lessons learnt in rheumatology are regularly published and are currently widely adapted and implemented in other specialties and research contexts. Challenges still exist and it is expected that rheumatology, as a leading discipline in this field, may further enhance our knowledge, expertise and understanding of the conditions for relational empowerment and meaningful patient involvement.