Public health

Speaking up for arthritis


One of Australia’s leading rheumatologists has called on colleagues and fellow health professionals to put pressure on both sides of Federal Parliament in the lead up to next month’s election to commit more funds to arthritis research, treatment and prevention.

And she wants to see clinicians rally their patients to tell their personal stories in a major pre-election campaign launched by Arthritis Australia, called SpeakUp4Arthritis and designed to shine a light on the human face of the debilitating disease.

Arthritis is already costing the health system $5.5 billion annually, but the national body has only asked for a government investment of just $24 million a year – paltry compared to current costs.

The breakdown of Arthritis Australia’s wish list to all political parties includes:

  • $11m to support non-surgical management for people with osteoarthritis
  • $3m for specialist nurses to support people with auto-immune and inflammatory forms of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile arthritis
  • $10m a year to boost research funding, including $1m for research into juvenile arthritis.

Associate Professor Susanna Proudman, Medical Director of the Arthritis Australia Board, a Senior Consultant in Rheumatology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and an Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Adelaide, said there needs to be a massive culture shift in attitudes towards arthritis funding, particularly when it comes to research.

“It’s extremely difficult in the current climate to get funding for research of any kind that is related to arthritis,” she said. “And that’s not through want of trying.”

Professor Proudman’s comments follow the release of a major Arthritis Australia report detailing the growing multi-billion dollar costs of arthritis to the economy, individuals and to the healthcare system.

The report, called Counting the cost: the current and future burden of arthritis, was prepared by Professors Deborah Schofield of the University of Sydney and Danny Liew of the Melbourne EpiCentre at the University of Melbourne and their teams for Arthritis Australia.

The report revealed nearly four million Australians currently live with arthritis – a figure tipped to rise to 5.4 million by 2030. While arthritis costs the health system $5.5 billion in 2015 and this will grow to $7.6 billion by 2030 unless more is done to prevent and better manage the condition, the authors predicted.

Franca Marine, Policy and Government Relations Manager at Arthritis Australia said joint replacements were a significant area of cost that could be impacted greatly through prevention and early intervention.

“We spend more on joint replacements than on any other hospital procedures, yet little priority is given to programs that can prevent or delay these expensive surgeries,” she said.

“Our report finds that supporting better non-surgical management for people with knee osteoarthritis could save the health system more than $170 million in reduced knee replacements alone. This could be achieved with an investment of as little as $11 million a year.”

Professor Proudman told the limbic there was an enormous potential to improve the outcomes and quality of lives for people with arthritis. She highlighted the need for more specialised rheumatology/arthritis nurses to be rolled out across the country, particularly in regional and remote areas.

These could work in a similar way to the hugely successful breast care nurse network set up by the McGrath Foundation. Professor Proudman said they would take a huge burden off already thinly-spread rheumatologists.

“Rheumatology nurses have been around for a long time but it has been extremely difficult to get this established in Australia,” she said.

“In effect they can provide frontline care for patients with arthritis, and this frees clinicians up to deal with the more complex and acute cases. There’s just no way that clinicians are going to be able to manage that marked increase in patients on their own.

“I think the doctors are certainly ready for a more multi-disciplinary model of care.”

She said other allied health professionals such as exercise physiologists, dieticians and physiotherapists could also play an important role in managing the less acute patients.

“We know that helping patients to lose small amounts of weight and improve fitness delays the need for joint replacement surgery,” she said.

“Access to this in the wider community is generally only available to those who can afford to pay for it and that needs to change.”

She applauded Arthritis Australia’s move to turn the spotlight on patients and their stories – many of which are detailed in the report and on the campaign website. She said rheumatologists, GPs and other health professionals had ready access to these patients and should urge them to join the campaign.

“We do want patients to tell their stories,” she told the limbic. “I think this is the first time that Arthritis Australia has really taken it out to such a grassroots level and we hope people in the community will rally round and share their powerful stories.”

And she wants political parties to seriously consider the call for a greater funding commitment, which is far from an ambit claim.

“It is frustrating, that such a small amount of money in the overall cost of arthritis could have such a major impact,” she said.

 

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