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Early diagnosis and treatment of rheumatoid arthritis ( RA) underpins a new evidence-based education program for health professionals aiming to improve the quality of life of patients with the condition.

Developed by NPS MedicineWise in partnership with the Australian Rheumatology Association and Arthritis Australia, the education program reinforces how early diagnosis and treatment can alter the course of the disease, improve physical function, delay or prevent irreversible joint damage and boost the chances of clinical remission in patients.

Dr Andrew Boyden, a medical advisor with NPS MedicineWise, says there is a small ‘window of opportunity’ as short as three months from the onset of the disease where therapy has the most impact.

“Early diagnosis of RA and initiation of treatment is vital,” Dr Boyden says.

“This program supports GPs to recognise clinical features that suggest RA may be present – and assists them with how they approach diagnostic testing. Early referral to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis and allow the timely initiation of treatment is also encouraged.”

While evidence-based guidelines support the use of methotrexate as the best treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, Dr Boyden suggests misconceptions commonly compromise its uptake.

He said communication between patients and healthcare providers can help form an integrated management plan and that consistent messaging about appropriate medicines, strategies for pain management and lifestyle medication can support better outcomes.

“Consumer information commonly refers to cautions and potential toxicity concerns that apply to methotrexate when it is used in high doses as chemotherapy. These are not relevant to the much lower doses used to treat RA.”

NPS MedicineWise held a webinar for health professionals earlier this year ‘Rheumatoid arthritis: getting the facts straight about methotrexate’ which featured an interdisciplinary discussion about why early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for improved health outcomes.

Last year, a report backed by Arthritis Australia highlighted the lack of sufficient rheumatology nurses to provide care to an estimated 1.7 million sufferers of chronic inflammatory forms of arthritis.

Despite inflammatory forms of arthritis costing the Australian health system about $2.8 billion in 2015, the report found just 39 full-time equivalent rheumatology nurses practice in Australia, or just one nurse for every 45,000 sufferers.

The report argued that increasing rheumatology nurses would result in quicker diagnoses, better care and reduced health system costs.