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We systematically reviewed current guidelines for managing rheumatoid arthritis (RA) to evaluate their range and nature, assess variations in their recommendations and highlight divergence in their perspectives.

We searched Medline and Embase databases using the terms ‘clinical practice guidelines’ and ‘rheumatoid arthritis’ from January 2000 to January 2017 together with publications of national and international bodies. We included guidelines providing recommendations on general RA management spanning a range of treatments and published in English. We undertook narrative assessments due to the heterogeneity of the guidelines.

We identified 529 articles; 22 met our inclusion criteria. They were primarily developed by rheumatologists with variable involvement of patient and other experts. Three dealt with early RA, one established RA and 18 all patients. Most guidelines recommend regular assessments based on the Outcome Measures in Rheumatology core dataset; 18 recommended the disease activity score for 28 joints. Twenty recommended targeting remission; 16 suggested low disease activity as alternative. All guidelines recommend treating active RA; 13 made recommendations for moderate disease. The 21 guidelines considering early RA all recommended starting disease modifying drugs (DMARDs) as soon as possible; methotrexate was recommended for most patients. 19 recommended combination DMARDs when patients failed to respond fully to monotherapy and biologics were not necessarily indicated. 20 made recommendations about biologics invariably suggesting their use after failing conventional DMARDs, particularly methotrexate. Most did not make specific recommendations about using one class of biologics preferentially. Eight recommended tapering biologics when patients achieved sustained good responses.

Five general principles transcend most guidelines: DMARDs should be started as soon as possible after the diagnosis; methotrexate is the best initial treatment; disease activity should be regularly monitored; give biologics to patients with persistently active disease who have already received methotrexate; remission or low disease activity are the preferred treatment target.
Original languageEnglish
Article number42
JournalBMC Rheumatology
Early online date22 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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