Background: The severity and predictors of functional disability and health-related quality of life (HRQoL) in a cohort of South Africans with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were investigated.
Methods: Changes in the Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability Index (HAQ) and the 36-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) following 12 months of traditional disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) were studied in previously DMARD-naïve adults with disease duration ≤ 2 years.
Results: The majority of the 171 patients were female (82%), Black Africans (89%) with a mean (SD) symptom duration of 11.6 (7.0) months. In the 134 patients seen at 12 months, there were significant improvements in the HAQ and all domains of the SF-36 but 92 (69%) still had substantial functional disability (HAQ > 0.5) and 89 (66%) had suboptimal mental health [SF-36 mental composite score (MCS) < 66.6]. Multivariate analysis showed that female sex (p = 0.05) and high baseline HAQ score (p < 0.01) predicted substantial functional disability at 12 months. Unemployment (p = 0.03), high baseline pain (p = 0.02), and HAQ score (p = 0.04) predicted suboptimal mental health, with a trend towards a low level of schooling being significant (p = 0.08).
Conclusions: Early RA has a broad impact on HRQoL in indigent South Africans, with a large proportion of patients still showing substantial functional disability and suboptimal mental health despite 12 months of DMARD therapy. Further research is needed to establish the role of interventions including psychosocial support, rehabilitation programmes, and biological therapy to improve physical function and HRQoL in this population.