Long-term impact of delay in assessment of patients with early arthritis

Arthritis Rheum. 2010 Dec;62(12):3537-46. doi: 10.1002/art.27692.


Objective: During the last decade, rheumatologists have learned to initiate disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) early to improve the outcome of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, the effect of delay in assessment by a rheumatologist on the outcome of RA has scarcely been explored. The purpose of this study was to examine the association between delay in assessment by a rheumatologist, rates of joint destruction, and probability of achieving DMARD-free remission in patients with RA. Patient characteristics associated with components of delay (by the patient, by the general practitioner [GP], and overall) were assessed.

Methods: A total of 1,674 early arthritis patients from the Leiden Early Arthritis Clinic cohort were evaluated for patient delay, GP delay, and total delay in assessment by a rheumatologist. Among 598 RA patients, associations between total delay, achievement of sustained DMARD-free remission, and the rate of joint destruction over 6 years followup were determined.

Results: The median patient, GP, and total delays in seeing a rheumatologist among patients with early arthritis were 2.4 weeks, 8.0 weeks, and 13.7 weeks, respectively. Among all diagnoses, those diagnosed as having RA or spondylarthritis had the longest total delay (18 weeks). Among the RA patients, 69% were assessed in ≥12 weeks; this was associated with a hazard ratio of 1.87 for not achieving DMARD-free remission and a 1.3 times higher rate of joint destruction over 6 years, as compared with assessment in <12 weeks. Older age, female sex, gradual symptom onset, involvement of the small joints, lower levels of C-reactive protein, and the presence of autoantibodies were associated with longer total delay.

Conclusion: Only 31% of the RA patients were assessed in <12 weeks of symptom onset. Assessment in <12 weeks is associated with less joint destruction and a higher chance of achieving DMARD-free remission as compared with a longer delay in assessment. These results imply that attempts to diminish the delay in seeing a rheumatologist will improve disease outcome in patients with RA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Antirheumatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / blood
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / diagnosis*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy*
  • C-Reactive Protein / metabolism
  • Cohort Studies
  • Delayed Diagnosis / adverse effects*
  • Disease Progression*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • General Practitioners / education
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Remission Induction
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Factors
  • Time Factors
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antirheumatic Agents
  • C-Reactive Protein