Rheumatoid arthritis has a significant impact on patients' physical, emotional and social functioning that often occurs very early in the disease with the onset of symptoms. Patients therefore come to their consultation with the rheumatologist, having often experienced these symptoms over a period of some months, with specific expectations (for reassurance and diagnosis) and their own understanding and beliefs about the aetiology and prognosis of their symptoms. Information and advice given by rheumatologists will be rejected by patients if it cannot be accommodated within these lay beliefs. The diagnosis itself can cause a variety of reactions, including relief, disbelief, anger, fear and devastation. Following diagnosis, patients are faced with the problems of adapting to a new self-concept, managing their symptoms and trying to assimilate the large amount of information that they are given about their disease, its treatment, preferred health behaviours, prognosis and so on. There are a number of ways in which health professionals can reduce this impact in early disease. Eliciting patients' lay beliefs about the cause of their symptoms will ensure that information given in the consultation is relevant to individual patients and is presented in a way that has meaning for them. Determining patients' expectations of the rheumatologist will ensure that patients' needs for information and reassurance are met and that unrealistic or inappropriate expectations can be discussed and re-negotiated. Understanding patients' attitudes towards treatment interventions will inform shared clinical decision-making and promote adherence. Obtaining this information in the context of a time-limited consultation can be assisted by the use of validated clinical tools, presented as self-completed questionnaires. Further research is needed to determine the content, frequency, timing and methodology of educational interventions in early rheumatoid arthritis and to improve the understanding of the complex interaction between lay beliefs and disease outcome.
Copyright 2001 Harcourt Publishers Ltd.