Objective: To establish the prevalence of work disability and predictors of change in employment status in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Setting: The Norfolk Arthritis Register (NOAR), a primary-care based inception cohort of patients with recent-onset inflammatory arthritis.
Methods: Two cohorts of patients notified to NOAR, who satisfied the 1987 ACR criteria for RA at the time of notification (baseline) and who were economically active at the time of RA symptom onset, were identified. Cohort 1 consisted of 160 patients with an onset of RA between 1989 and 1992, and was followed for a mean of 8.6 yr from symptom onset. For 110 of these cases, a control group, matched for age, gender and employment status at baseline, was identified from the local population. Their employment histories were compared in 1995. Cohort 2 consisted of 134 patients with an onset of RA between 1994 and 1997, and was followed for a mean of 4.1 yr from symptom onset.
Results: One-third of RA cohort 1 had stopped working on the grounds of ill health by 1995. The baseline health assessment questionnaire (HAQ) score was the most important predictor of work disability. These patients were 32 times more likely to stop work on health grounds than the matched controls. The rates for work disability for the RA cases 1, 2, 5 and 10 yr after symptom onset were 14, 26, 33 and 39% respectively. For cohort 2, the rates for work disability 1 and 2 yr from onset were 23 and 33% respectively.
Conclusion: Work disability is an important outcome in RA patients of working age. Many people stop working very early in the disease process, often before they are referred to hospital or started on disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. Although the peak rates for work disability are in the early years, people with RA continue to leave the work force several years after onset. Thus, the recent move to earlier, more aggressive treatment has had no effect on the rates of work disability.