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Lack of specialist nurses affecting arthritis diagnosis and treatment

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Arthritis needs to be treated in a timely manner Arthritis needs to be treated in a timely manner

A lack of specialist rheumatology nurses affects the ability to commence treatment for arthritis in a timely manner and achieve treatment targets, a report by the British Society of Rheumatology has found.

The second National Clinical Audit for Rheumatoid and Early Inflammatory Arthritis found that 20% of patients who attend general practice with suspected rheumatoid and early inflammatory arthritis are referred to specialist services within the three-day limit recommended by NICE. The report identifies a shortage of specialist nurses in some areas which acts as a barrier to timely treatment.

‘Remission is a realistic aim with modern management, allowing patients to live a longer and more fulfilling life, benefitting themselves, their families, their employers and ultimately costing the government less in benefit payments and costlier drug treatment,’ said Jo Ledingham, clinical director of the audit. ‘Rapid access to specialist services is needed, however, to facilitate this.’

Without treatment, the condition can have a severe impact on patients. According to the report, more than 30% of patients stop working within two years of onset, and half will be unable to work within 10 years. The condition is a major cause of sickness absence and unemployment, which is estimated to cost around £1.8 billion per year. Additionally, patients are twice as likely to experience depression and have similar risks of cardiovascular disease as patients with diabetes.

Dr Ledingham said that healthcare professionals understand the 'need for speed' when it comes to diagnosing and referring cancer patients, yet many still don’t understand that they need to treat inflammatory arthritis with the same urgency.

Dr Liam O’Toole, chief executive officer of Arthritis Research UK, said the results of this audit are 'disappointing' and show that people with inflammatory arthritis still aren’t 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,' he said.

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

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