A report by the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) said public knowledge of the disease was 'very low', and called on health departments in England, Scotland and Wales to launch more effective awareness campaigns.
A ComRes survey commissioned by the society found just 41% of 2,074 people could identify disease symptoms, while only 33% understood the differences from osteoarthritis.
Diagnosing and treating the disease within 12 weeks of symptom onset can greatly improve prognosis, but patients often miss this 'window of opportunity' because they do not report symptoms to their GP early enough, the society said.
The NRAS report, 'Breaking Down Barriers', said more 'comprehensive' awareness campaigns are needed.
'This should include plans for more co-ordinated and effective displaying of public information in GP surgeries, community pharmacies and other healthcare settings,' the report said.
It said GPs had few opportunities to improve their abilities to identify the disease because most see less than one new case of rheumatoid arthritis per year.
Nevertheless, the survey found 27% of the public incorrectly believed that 'GPs can diagnose rheumatoid arthritis easily'.
Earlier this year, GPs welcomed a set of three new Best Practice Tariffs for hospitals designed to speed up the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis following a GP referral.