New figures have suggested that a large proportion of those living with arthritis in the UK are having to wait a long time for referrals to specialist care.
This is putting them at risk of long-term disability and reduced life expectancy, the report from Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership (HQIP) states.
It found that four out of five patients with early inflammatory arthritis are at risk of at risk of preventable, long-term disability and reduced life expectancy because of long waiting lists for access to specialists.
The figures, published in the National Rheumatoid and Early Inflammatory Arthritis Audit report, offer the most comprehensive view of these types of services across England and Wales and suggest that more needs to be done to protect against these long-term problems.
Occupational therapy can be a fantastic way to help reduce the impact of arthritis for many patients, and the earlier intervention and support can start, the better the outcome for the individual.
When a person is diagnosed with arthritis or any other rheumatic disease symptoms, the initial weeks and months are crucial and are often referred to as the 'window of opportunity'. It's essential that people are able to access appropriate treatment during this time to ensure the condition doesn't cause lasting complications later on.
However, the report shows that just 20 per cent of patients who see their GP with suspected rheumatoid and early inflammatory arthritis are referred to specialist services within the recommended three-day window.
The audit, carried out by the British Society for Rheumatology (BSR) and part of the National Clinical Audit and Patient Outcome Programme (NCAPOP), found that more than a quarter of patients were having to wait more than 20 weeks for help.
Once they are referred, the figures show that under half are seen by a specialist within the three-week time limit recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). In addition, some patients were having to wait more than 12 weeks to receive any treatment.
Although usually appearing in middle age, arthritis and other rheumatic diseases can be a significant problem when people reach older age. Being able to improve the management of these conditions at the early stages will help reduce the number of elderly people who are severely hampered by arthritis-related problems.
However, even when the disease has progressed past the initial stages, specially designed exercises can help reduce the day-to-day burden of arthritis, helping to manage pain and making it easier to get around.
Speaking about the report's findings, Dr Jo Ledingham, clinical audit director, said: "Remission is a realistic aim with modern management, allowing patients to live a longer and more fulfilling life, benefitting themselves, their families, their employers and ultimately costing the government less in benefit payments and more costly drug treatment."