Researchers call for improved accessibility to specialist medical services during healthcare crises
- Researchers have found that the Covid pandemic caused delays for patients seeking a diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile inflammatory arthritis.
- Delays in diagnosing and treating these conditions can lead to worse outcomes for patients, but the pandemic meant that referrals to specialist musculoskeletal services decreased across the country.
- The research team have called for specialist services such as these to remain easily accessible during future healthcare crises, to ensure that patients’ symptoms do not get worse while they await treatment.
Major delays due to pandemic
Delays for patients awaiting a diagnosis of an inflammatory arthritis, caused by changes in practice during the Covid pandemic, could have a negative impact on their symptoms and longer-term outlook, new research has found.
Researchers at Keele University found in their study, funded by FOREUM, that referrals to musculoskeletal specialists decreased during the early stages of the Covid pandemic, partly due to other healthcare services being prioritised, leading to delays for patients awaiting an arthritis diagnosis.
The researchers looked at six million anonymised healthcare records during three set periods; pre-pandemic (April 2017-February 2020), early pandemic (March 2020–August 2020), and late pandemic (September 2020–October 2021), to get an idea of numbers of referrals for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and juvenile inflammatory arthritis (JIA) during this time.
They found that referrals to specialists decreased in the early pandemic and then increased again after May 2020, meaning it took longer for patients to be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the early and late pandemic periods compared with before the pandemic, particularly for residents in more deprived areas.
Delays can worsen symptoms
If treatment for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis is delayed it can lead to worse symptoms for patients and longer-term disability, so the research team have called for more to be done to ensure specialist services for diagnosing and supporting patients with possible new inflammatory arthritis remain easily accessible during future healthcare crises.
Lead author Dr Claire Burton said: “The Covid pandemic understandably caused a huge shift in the way healthcare services were prioritised, but we’re only just beginning to understand the impact this has had on patients with longer-term conditions such as inflammatory arthritis.
“We hope that our research contributes to measuring the impact of the Covid pandemic on healthcare, particularly on those people with new musculoskeletal symptoms and diagnoses of inflammatory arthritis, and shows how important it is to ensure that services such as these remain accessible for patients during future times of crisis.”
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