A report by the British Society for Rheumatology has concluded that there is a lack of awareness among health professionals of the early signs of inflammatory arthritis, leading to delays in treatment to improve patients' symptoms. As a result, 80% of patients with early inflammatory arthritis are said to be at risk of developing long-term disability and reduced life expectancy.

Around a million people in the UK suffer inflammatory arthritis, most of whom have rheumatoid arthritis, which causes joint pain and swelling, associated with stiffness. The symptoms are usually relatively mild at first, but can degenerate and in extreme cases leave sufferers unable to manage their personal care. The symptoms can, however, be improved with steroids and anti-rheumatoid medication, but action needs to be taken within a window of opportunity of only a few months to avoid long-term complications.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidelines for rheumatoid arthritis. Patients who attend their GP with possible inflammatory arthritis should be referred to a rheumatology specialist within three days, but the report found only one in five met this target. Following referral, NICE stipulates that patients should see a specialist within three weeks, but less than half the sample surveyed achieved that deadline. Some parts of the country fare particularly badly.

Commenting on the report, Andrew Clayton of Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team explains: "The positive news in this report is that of the 5,000 patients studied, most said they had experienced good treatment and the overall impression is one of improving arthritis care. The concern, however, is that there seems to be a lack of awareness, particularly among GPs, of the signs and symptoms that should prompt early referral.

"Patients who are referred and seen by specialists at an early stage can benefit from treatment that helps alleviate their symptoms much earlier than those for whom the NICE targets are being missed. As the disease degenerates, the symptoms worsen and can be debilitating. Delays in referral and treatment can have a profound effect on patients' quality of life and more should be done to meet the NICE targets."