Objective: To assess the longterm effect of delaying therapy with second-line agents in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Methods: One hundred nineteen patients who participated in a 9 month placebo controlled randomized trial of hydroxychloroquine sulfate (HCQ) were followed prospectively for an additional 3 years. Those randomized to HCQ are referred to as the early treatment group and those randomized to placebo as the delayed treatment group. Participants were assessed annually for pain [Arthritis Impact Measurement Scales (AIMS) and Stanford Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ)], physical disability (AIMS and HAQ), and the RA global well being scale (AIMS). Conversion of results into standard deviation (SD) units permitted defining a substantial difference as per Felson as > 0.30 SD units and a clinically indistinguishable difference as < or = 0.06 SD units.
Results: One hundred fifteen patients (97%) participated and complete data were available on 104 (87%). Compared to the early treatment group, the delayed group remained worse for both the pain and the physical disability outcomes over the additional 3 year followup. The difference in the RA global well being score became clinically indistinguishable for the early and delayed groups only after the 2 year post-trial assessment. The between-group differences were not explained by post-trial therapy with corticosteroids, other second-line agents, or nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs and analgesic preparations.
Conclusion: These findings show that a delay in instituting therapy with second-line agents, even a 9 month delay in instituting a moderately powerful second-line agent such as HCQ, has significant effects on longterm patient outcome, and provides strong evidence in support of early therapy in RA.