Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is associated with progressive joint destruction, with functional status influenced by both disease activity and radiographic progression. The case for early aggressive treatment of RA is based on large amounts of good data in many countries. Studies with conventional disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs in early RA have shown improved outcomes compared with later treatment, especially if an aggressive approach with combinations of drugs is used. Early intervention with tumour necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors has been shown to improve clinical outcomes, induce remission and prevent radiographic progression. It also improves patients' functional status, health-related quality of life, and reduces fatigue. Patients with RA have reduced productivity, an increased number of lost work days and retire early; enabling patients to work should be at the core of a therapy's cost-effectiveness. Introduction of anti-TNF therapy early in RA has been shown to decrease job loss and reduce the amount of working time missed. Although the drug costs of initial treatment with combination therapy including a TNF inhibitor are high, these may be compensated by the reduction in lost productivity, making such a strategy cost-effective overall. In addition, some patients who respond well to combination therapy may be able to stop the TNF inhibitor. It is important to assess the benefits of any intervention not just to healthcare costs but to society as a whole, and physicians should be advocates for optimal access to effective therapies for their patients.