Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disabling condition associated with a significant long-term loss of function and a significant socio-economic impact on individual sufferers and their families, as well as on society as a whole. There is a suggestion that the incidence and severity of the disease may be abating slightly, which has been attributed to the trend to 'invert the pyramid' and to diagnose and treat rheumatoid disease earlier and more aggressively. Studies have confirmed that the erosions, which lead to subsequent joint damage, occur early in the course of the disease. Ongoing disease activity, both clinically and serologically, has now been linked to increasing morbidity, loss of function and mortality. New agents have been developed and, together with combinations of old and new agents, have been shown to be more effective if used earlier in the course of the disease. The better the early control of the disease, the better the long-term outcome. Early and more vigorous treatment, particularly of those patients with a high joint count, early loss of function and an elevated titre of inflammatory markers, has potential to reduce the twofold increase in mortality seen among rheumatoid arthritis patients. The scene is set to have a greater impact on the long-term disability and associated cost to the individual and society by treating early and treating often. Combination therapy and the new 'biologicals' are, however, far more expensive than the previously available agents, and the direct medical costs associated with medication, as well as the monitoring costs for rheumatoid arthritis, are increasing. It is difficult to value the long-term prevention of pain and suffering, and the maintenance of productivity. However, if the disease were effectively controlled early, there would be long-term benefits to be offset against the higher treatment cost. It behooves the rheumatological community to use the new agents wisely to gain the greatest advantage for all patients as well as to monitor the long-term benefits and drawbacks so that cost-effectiveness can be comprehensively evaluated.
Copyright 2001 Harcourt Publishers Ltd.