Rheumatoid arthritis costing the economy £1.8bn a year

Too many people with rheumatoid arthritis are not being diagnosed or treated quickly enough, potentially costing the economy £1.8bn a year in sick leave and work-related disability, the government’s spending watchdog has said.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has said services for people with the disease are not co-ordinated well enough, with the NHS failing to provide consistent support for people to remain in or return to work. It also criticised the lack of local links between the NHS and Jobcentre Plus services.

It estimated that rheumatoid arthritis costs the NHS £560m a year, with 580,000 adults in England having the disease and a further 26,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

Between half and three-quarters of people with rheumatoid arthritis delayed seeking medical help from their GP for three months or more following the onset of symptoms, and around a fifth delayed for a year or more.

To exacerbate matters, few GPs had the specialist expertise required to diagnose the condition, resulting in further delays, with the average length of time from symptom onset to treatment now nine months, compared with a clinically recommended period of three months. This had not improved in the past five years.

There was also inconsistent co-ordination between GPs and hospital specialists and a lack of access to psychological services, even though depression was common for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Amyas Morse, NAO head, said: “Patients with this debilitating and distressing disease are not identified or treated quickly enough and this dramatically affects long-term outcomes and people’s ability to remain in work.”

A more co-ordinated approach and faster access to specialist care would provide better outcomes for patients and productivity gains for the economy, she added.

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