Objective: To evaluate the costs of workups to diagnose early arthritis.
Methods: In 2000, the French Society for Rheumatology conducted a survey of a representative sample of French and Belgian rheumatologists (n = 239). The respondents were asked to consider 2 hypothetical scenarios, 1 describing undifferentiated arthritis and the other more suggestive of rheumatoid arthritis. They were then asked what diagnostic workup they would order. Costs for each study were determined in 2001 euros, according to the French public health system fee schedules.
Results: In total, 151 rheumatologists participated in the study (63%). The mean +/- SD diagnostic costs were 406.5 +/- 194.3 euro for the case with no diagnostic clues, and 280.7 +/- 154.3 euro for the case suggestive of early RA. Responses were very heterogeneous. The 2 main sources of expenditure were immunology tests and imaging. Hospital staff physicians tended to order more expensive workups, and costs tended to vary inversely with physician experience. The most important predictor of cost was diagnostic doubt, as estimated by the number of diagnoses proposed by respondents in each case; each additional diagnosis cost an additional 19.1-26.1 euro.
Conclusion: Diagnostic workups after a first medical visit for early polyarthritis result in substantial direct costs. This observation and the great variability observed in physicians' practices point out the need for consensus on the appropriate workups for these patients.