Incidence and management of inflammatory arthritis in England before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a population-level cohort study using OpenSAFELY

OpenSAFELY Collaborative

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Background: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the incidence and management of inflammatory arthritis is not understood. Routinely captured data in secure platforms, such as OpenSAFELY, offer unique opportunities to understand how care for patients with inflammatory arthritis was impacted upon by the pandemic. Our objective was to use OpenSAFELY to assess the effects of the pandemic on diagnostic incidence and care delivery for inflammatory arthritis in England and to replicate key metrics from the National Early Inflammatory Arthritis Audit. Methods: In this population-level cohort study, we used primary care and hospital data for 17·7 million adults registered with general practices using TPP health record software, to explore the following outcomes between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2022: (1) incidence of inflammatory arthritis diagnoses (rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, axial spondyloarthritis, and undifferentiated inflammatory arthritis) recorded in primary care; (2) time to first rheumatology assessment; (3) time to first prescription of a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD) in primary care; and (4) choice of first DMARD. Findings: Among 17 683 500 adults, there were 31 280 incident inflammatory arthritis diagnoses recorded between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2022. The mean age of diagnosed patients was 55·4 years (SD 16·6), 18 615 (59·5%) were female, 12 665 (40·5%) were male, and 22 925 (88·3%) of 25 960 with available ethnicity data were White. New inflammatory arthritis diagnoses decreased by 20·3% in the year commencing April, 2020, relative to the preceding year (5·1 vs 6·4 diagnoses per 10 000 adults). The median time to first rheumatology assessment was shorter during the pandemic (18 days; IQR 8–35) than before (21 days; 9–41). The proportion of patients prescribed DMARDs in primary care was similar before and during the pandemic; however, during the pandemic, fewer people were prescribed methotrexate or leflunomide, and more were prescribed sulfasalazine or hydroxychloroquine. Interpretation: Inflammatory arthritis diagnoses decreased markedly during the early phase of the pandemic. The impact on rheumatology assessment times and DMARD prescribing in primary care was less marked than might have been anticipated. This study demonstrates the feasibility of using routinely captured, near real-time data in the secure OpenSAFELY platform to benchmark care quality on a national scale, without the need for manual data collection. Funding: Versus Arthritis and Pfizer Grant for Quality Improvement in Rheumatology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e853-e863
JournalThe Lancet Rheumatology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


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