Overheard on the steps of the ExCeL London convention center on the last day of the annual European Congress of Rheumatology:
Attendee 1: “What is rheumatism?”
Attendee 2: “You know. Achy legs and such.”
Attendee 1: “Sounds dull.”
Attendee 2: “They’re probably saying that about us.”
Attendee 1: “Doubt it.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should explain that not only was it the last day of this year’s EULAR congress, it was also the second day of the MCM Expo London Comic Con, which was taking place at the west end of the same convention center. The above discourse occurred between a giant insect and an anime character.
It was impossible not to be amused by the unlikely juxtaposition of the two gatherings, particularly because the facility’s main entrance was on the building’s west side,. To get to the EULAR events, thousands of suited and serious rheumatologists had to weave in, out, and around the Comic Con crowd, all of whom were dressed as their favorite comic, manga, anime, film, game, and cult entertainment stars and were engaged in various modes of role play.
Despite the apparent incongruity, however, the above discourse seemed inherently relevant, as it came on the heels of a presentation that elucidated some persistent obstacles to the early diagnosis and optimal treatment of early rheumatologic disease, which I have come to think of as collective symptoms of rheumatology’s PR crisis.
In short, a lot of people don’t know what rheumatology is, and the opinions of those who have some vague sense of it continue to be colored by myths and misconceptions, including the belief that arthritis (or “rheumatism,” as per the arachnid quoted above) is a single entity and that there’s not much that can be done for it.
With respect to rheumatoid arthritis, in particular, this lack of awareness contributes to diagnostic and treatment delays that can have devastating consequences. While much effort has been spent recently on the development of early arthritis clinics within rheumatology centers as a way to streamline patient management, their success is limited. They can address the needs of only those patients who walk through the doors, not those of people who don’t seek treatment when their symptoms develop and persist or whose symptoms are inadequately assessed and managed initially by primary care physicians, according to session panelist Dr. Vivian Bykerk from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “We have to remove all of the roadblocks that are keeping very early inflammatory arthritis patients from getting to the rheumatologist,” she said.
Among the strategies recommended by Dr. Bykerk and co-panelist Dr. Paul Emery, EULAR president and head of musculoskeletal diseases at Chapel Allerton Hospital in the United Kingdom, were the possibility of prescreening referrals, the development of a specialized rheumatology referral form to help primary care physicians identify urgent referrals, the implementation of central triage clinics, and protocols for educating physicians and patients about the signs and symptoms of rheumatologic diseases and the value of early intervention. In other words, rheumatology needs better PR.