NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 16, 2009

Thousands of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers in the United Kingdom face a lifetime of agony because they are not being treated quickly enough through the government-run Nathional Health Service, according to a new report by the National Audit Office.

For example:

  • Guidelines state that patients should receive treatment within three months of the first symptoms appearing.
  • But the average wait is nine months -- and general practitioners (GPs) are not trained well enough to know what help to offer.
  • There is no cure, but experts say that if arthritis is diagnosed in the first three months, drugs can be given which limit its progression; this means the disease will not be as painful as it would have been if the condition was diagnosed later.

The study found that patients do not know enough about the condition, and therefore delay going to see their GP:

  • Between half and three-quarters of people with symptoms wait more than three months before seeking medical help, and about a fifth delay for a year or more.
  • GPs lack the specialist knowledge required to diagnose the condition quickly, and on average it takes four visits before a patient is referred to a specialist for diagnosis and treatment.

This is a nasty disease, a progressive auto-immune disease, which attacks otherwise healthy joints.  Early symptoms are joint pain and stiffness and it leads to inflammation and loss of strength.  It also affects other parts of the body, such as the heart and lungs, and is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, says the report's author, Chris Groom.

The report found that the average length of time from the onset of symptoms to treatment has not improved in the past five years.  Groom said that services needed to be better coordinated and designed around people's needs, including helping them remain in work.

Three-quarters of sufferers are of working age when diagnosed, meaning delays cost the economy almost £2billion (more than U.S.$3.2 billion) a year -- about £560million (or about U.S.$919 million) a year in NHS health care costs and £1.8billion (more than U.S.$2.9 billion) in sick leave and work-related disability.

Source: Daniel Martin, "9-month wait for arthritis treatment: Delay can mean a lifetime of agony for victims," London Daily Mail, July 15, 2009.

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