Background: Early diagnosis and treatment with disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) have been advocated for patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This survey focuses on the individual definitions and treatment modalities of rheumatologists, and aims at determining the practical realisation of these concepts.
Methods: A questionnaire to be self completed was handed out at the EULAR Symposium 1997. The main issues dealt with were definition, referral time, diagnosis, follow up, and treatment of early RA. Of the 111 participants, who were from all continents and all age groups, 85 (77%) gave their name and address. In 2000, the same questionnaire was sent to these 85 primary respondents. Forty four questionnaires (52%) were returned, and their results were matched and further evaluated.
Results: The definition of early RA was heterogeneous, but two of three rheumatologists use the term "early" for symptoms shorter than three months. There was a drift towards acceptance of involvement of fewer affected joints. Serological tests obtained for early diagnosis were mostly rheumatoid factor and antinuclear antibodies, usually in combination (approximately 70%), while other tests (antikeratin antibodies, antiperinuclear factor, anti-RA33) were used rarely, but increasingly (21–25% all together). No significant change in the lag time of referral to the specialist of patients with suspected early RA was seen within these three years (<3 months for 50%, >6 months for 20%), while the proportion followed up during the first three months increased. At both times, every second rheumatologist started DMARD treatment only when the 1987 American College of Rheumatology (ACR) criteria were fulfilled. However, in 1997 about 10% were willing to wait for erosions before starting DMARDs, while none did so in 2000. Methotrexate, sulfasalazine, and antimalarial drugs were the most commonly prescribed DMARDs in early RA, with the first two of these still being in increasing use.
Conclusion: The understanding of "early" rheumatoid arthritis is heterogeneous, but the vast majority of the rheumatologists surveyed regard symptom duration of <3 months as early. Rheumatoid factor was the most useful laboratory support in early diagnosis. Because there has been no shortening of referral time of patients with new RA within the past three years, and many rheumatologists start DMARDs only when the ACR criteria are fulfilled, it is concluded that guidelines for early referral, as well as for early (rheumatoid) arthritis, are needed.