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Referral delays for arthritis patients could have devastating consequences

I would like to highlight the devastating consequences that delayed referrals are having on people with inflammatory arthritis.

The latest national clinical audit, published by the British Rheumatology Society on 25 July 2016, revealed that a high proportion of NHS services are failing to meet quality standards set by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. This includes referral from a GP to a specialist service within three days and assessment in a rheumatology service within three weeks.

Rheumatoid arthritis (and other forms of inflammatory arthritis) are conditions in which the immune system attacks the joints, making them inflamed — hot, red, painful and swollen. These conditions can lead to long-term joint damage, causing chronic pain and disability. Urgent, intensive treatment is needed when these conditions occur to stop inflammation and prevent long-term damage.

The audit found that only 20% of people who see a GP with suspected early inflammatory arthritis are referred within three days, and only 37% of those are seen by a specialist within three weeks.

The audit findings about treatment were more positive; 68% of those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis received disease modifying antirheumatoid drugs within six weeks of their diagnosis, an increase of 15% from the previous audit.

Nonetheless, the results of this audit are disappointing and show that people with inflammatory arthritis are not getting the treatment they need fast enough. The impact of delayed treatment can be detrimental and life-changing. Four out of five people with inflammatory arthritis are at risk of long-term disability or reduced life expectancy because of delays.

We urge that immediate action is taken to improve access to services, so that people with inflammatory arthritis get the treatment they need and the quality of life they deserve.

Tracey Loftis

Head of policy and public affairs

Arthritis Research UK

Citation: Clinical Pharmacist DOI: 10.1211/CP.2016.20201522

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