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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 August, 2003, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Rheumatoid arthritis 'ignored'
Rheumatoid arthritis can make everyday tasks very painful
Senior doctors have accused the government of ignoring the needs of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

They have called for a national strategy to fight the disease and for the NHS to make it a priority.

About one in 100 people develop rheumatoid arthritis, although it affects three times as many woman as men.

It can cause joints to become tender, stiff and swollen and in severe cases can lead to joint damage and disability.

Recent studies have suggested that the condition can shorten people's lives to the same degree as stroke and heart disease.

Lack of specialists

The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society urged ministers to do more to ensure people with the condition get the help they need.

Ailsa Bosworth, its chairman, highlighted a lack of specialist doctors and nurses to treat patients.

She said the quality of care varied across the UK and suggested extra money is needed.

"It is disgraceful that in some areas of the UK the treatment of RA remains poorly resourced.

"Severe understaffing of consultant rheumatologists and specialist nurses, lack of training for GPs and patchy provision of services are common and there is a need for immediate change."

Her comments were backed by two senior doctors.

Bryan Williams, professor of rheumatology at the University of Wales, urged the government to draw up a national strategy or National Service Framework (NSF) to improve services.

"There are NSFs for cancer, mental health, older people, diabetes and cardiology, but the NHS has completely overlooked inflammatory arthritis disease.

"It is about time that diseases like RA became a priority," he said.

"Latest figures suggest that rheumatology is 40% under strength, resulting in long referral waiting times and consultants being unable to see patients as often as they would like.

"Problems are further compounded by a lack of pain clinics for patients in need."

Gabriel Panayi, professor of rheumatology at Guy's, Kings and St Thomas' School of Medicine, said the situation was so bad some patients were not receiving the drugs the need.

The NHS drugs watchdog, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, ruled last year that some patients with rheumatoid arthritis should be given a class of drug called Tumour Necrosis Factor alpha blockers (anti-TNFs).

They work by switching off TNF, which stimulates cells to produce the inflammation response that leads to pain and swelling of the joints.

NICE said these drugs should be given to patients with active rheumatoid arthritis who do not respond well to conventional treatment.

However, Professor Panayi said many eligible patients were not receiving these drugs.

"Patients eligible for anti-TNF drugs are also being ignored, despite the fact that they have proved to be hugely beneficial in restoring patient's mobility and independence where all other disease modifying drugs have failed," he said.

The Department of Health said it was working on a new strategy for patients with long term conditions.

A spokeswoman said the NSF would include standards for the care of patients with arthritis.

"We expect to develop a range of generic standards that will benefit people with long-term chronic conditions, like arthritis," she said.

"Examples of the type of generic issues include: rehabilitation, information for service users and carers; wheelchairs; and, community equipment."

Shadow Health Minister Chris Grayling said: "Arthritis sufferers are one of many groups of patients who are losing out because their condition falls outside of the government's targets."

He added: "It is about time that the government scrapped its politically motivated targets so that resources can be used for those who are in most need of medical care."

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