Objective: To describe changes in antirheumatic medication use by patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) over the 15 years 1981 to 1996.
Methods: Medication use was ascertained every 6 months by mailed Health Assessment Questionnaire in a cohort of patients recruited from the local community (n = 305; mean duration of RA at study entry 14.2 yrs). Patients were treated by 53 rheumatologists and over 200 other physicians during the study. The proportions of patients treated with nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAID), disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARD), prednisone, intraarticular corticosteroids, and analgesics were determined in serial cross sectional analyses, and trends in medication use over time were analyzed using linear regression.
Results: From 1981 to 1996, the proportion of patients treated with DMARD increased from 32 to 47% (average increase 1.06% each year; p < 0.0001), while the proportion treated with NSAID decreased from 86 to 76% (average decrease 0.57% each year; p < 0.0001). The proportion of patients treated with prednisone remained between 30 and 40%, with a trend toward increasing use over time (average increase 0.2% each year; p = 0.05). In contrast, the proportion treated with intraarticular corticosteroids decreased from 14.4 to 6.7% (average decrease 0.46% each year; p < 0.0001). In 1996, the most prevalent patterns of medication use were the use of NSAID alone (24.4%), use of an NSAID and DMARD (16.3%), and use of an NSAID, DMARD, and prednisone (12.2%). Use of an NSAID as the only antirheumatic medication decreased over time, and the use of DMARD in combination with other medications increased.
Conclusion: The proportion of patients with RA treated with DMARD increased substantially from 1981 to 1996. This change in practice occurred during the time in which the concept of inverting the traditional therapeutic pyramid became popular, and may reflect a translation among clinicians of the philosophy of "early DMARD use" to "consistent DMARD use," even among patients with RA of moderate or longstanding duration.