NHS services must diagnose rheumatoid arthritis (RA) earlier, a government watchdog has warned, as data show the condition is 75 per cent more prevalent than previously thought.
The National Audit Office (NAO) reviewed services for people with RA in England.
It estimates that there are 580,000 people with RA in England, with 26,000 new diagnoses each year. UK-wide, this equates to around 700,000 cases, 75 per cent higher than NICE's estimate of 400,000.
The NAO said diagnosing more people with RA within three months of symptom onset, when treatment is most effective, would save money and improve patients' quality of life.
Currently, only 10 per cent of RA patients are treated this early. Increasing this to 20 per cent would boost the economy by £20 million a year by cutting sick leave, the NAO said.
Chris Groom, audit manager for the report, said: 'It's about NHS services across the board working better together and then linking up with the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus,' he said.
The report called on PCTs to work with local services supporting people with musculoskeletal conditions to remain in, or return to work.
It said awareness of RA among the public was low, and PCTs need better data on prevalence - three-quarters had not assessed how many people had RA in their area.
The DoH should look at the case for a campaign to raise awareness of RA, the report said. The House of Commons public accounts committee will make recommendations on how NHS bodies should respond after a hearing in November.
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