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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 00:07 GMT
NHS 'failing' arthritis patients
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

The NHS is not providing proper care for people with musculoskeletal conditions (MSCs) like arthritis according to a survey of health professionals.

Photo of hip x-ray
Musculoskeletal conditions affect joints like hips and knees
The Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance (ARMA) - a consortium of 28 organisations which carried out the survey - says the result is that people are in pain, forced out of jobs and struggling to remain independent.

"People are finding it impossible to get the healthcare they need and are entitled to," said consultant rheumatologist and ARMA chairman, Mike Webley.

Researchers spoke to 84 doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

They found that more than 90 percent said they were unable to provide the level of service needed by people with musculoskeletal conditions as a result of the government's health service priorities.

It is estimated that more than eight million in the UK have an MSC.

But the Department of Health says it is taking real steps to improve treatment and access to services for people with arthritis and similar conditions.

People are finding it impossible to get the healthcare they need and are entitled to
Mike Webley
"There are now more doctors and nurses than ever before, and more medicines are being provided than ever before," said health minister, Stephen Ladyman.

The ARMA survey also found that none of the professionals questioned rated their service for people with MSCs as 'excellent'.

ARMA says it has come across examples of patients who have waited a number of years to get a formal diagnosis, patients who have been unable to get prescriptions for appropriate medication, people who have been forced to stop work, and people whose independence has been limited because they are on waiting lists for urgently needed operations.

The organisation has published a set of standards which it hopes will help health providers as well as people who need treatment.

Of those who responded to its survey, more than 90 percent said having a set of standards could improve the services they offer and more than two-thirds felt that having standards would help people with MSCs to get back to work.

"We know the establishment of the new standards could mark a new beginning for the millions of people who need more support from the health service," said ARMA chief executive, Sophie Edwards.

'Failed promises'

She says the government has failed to keep its promise of including people with MSCs in its national service frameworks for the NHS.

"People's needs don't go away just because there isn't a service available - the impact ripples through families, communities, employers and the tax payer."

"More than half a million people claim incapacity benefit because of MSCs, meantime health and social services are spending 5.5bn a year."

The government points out that NHS patents now have access to two new classes of drugs to treat arthritis.

"We recently announced there will be specialist teams across the country, based in every Strategic Health Authority, who will provide advice, care and treatment for people with chronic diseases like arthritis," said Mr Ladyman.

The minister said that the government will be publishing a national service framework for people with long-term conditions later this year.

"This will consider some of the common issues that can promote independence and reduce disability for people with long-term conditions like arthritis."

Patient power

Thirty-one year-old Ben Mitchell was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when he was in his mid-twenties.

"The most worrying thing was not knowing what it was - it was really quite distressing, and I didn't have a clue what I could do," he told BBC News Online.

Photo of Ben Mitchell
Ben Mitchell helps to manage his own condition
"I was quite lucky though - it took between six and nine months for me to get a diagnosis."

At the moment, Mr Mitchell's condition is in remission and he works full-time as a sales manager for a London photographic agency.

But he says that he is no longer able to take part in team sports like five-a-side football and hockey which he used to enjoy.

When he was first diagnosed he was living in Oxford but has since moved to London.

He says there is a significant difference in the quality of treatment offered to people with conditions like his in the two cities.

"In London they're more interested in working with you to help you manage the condition," he said.

"There seems to be a greater willingness to get me referrals to other services like physiotherapy".

Mr Mitchell thinks patients feel more in control of their conditions if a doctor gives them a range of options and involves them in the decision as to which is the most appropriate for them.

"Luckily I am now in that position - it's more empowering and better for your general wellbeing," he said.

The Department of Health says it wants to extend people's opportunities to take an active part in the management of there own conditions.

"Through the Arthritis Care self-management programme and the Experts Patient Programme (EPP) we are helping people to develop these skills," said Mr Ladyman.

The government is planning to make the EPP available nationally by 2008.

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