Conference Coverage

Multiple studies highlight pandemic’s impact on patients with rheumatic disease



Reduced access to medical care, increased mental health issues, poor lifestyle habits, and concern over future care are just some of the patient-reported problems associated with the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the results of multiple studies.

Data from the Europe-based REUMAVID study, which surveyed more 1,800 patients between April and July last year, have revealed that 58% of patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) had their appointments with their rheumatologists canceled, 42% could not get in touch with their primary care physicians, and 52% experienced interrupted visits to mental health specialists.

Not surprisingly, this took a toll on patients’ self-perceived health, with nearly two-thirds stating that they had fair to very poor health, and 47% reporting that their health had worsened. Furthermore, 57% of respondents reported high levels of anxiety, almost 46% were at risk for depression, and 49% reported having poor well-being overall.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had tremendous impact,” Marco Garrido-Cumbrera, PhD, of the University of Seville, Spain, said at the British Society for Rheumatology annual conference.

Dr. Garrido-Cumbrera, who is key player in the REUMAVID initiative, explained that the project was conceived to respond to concerns raised by the president of the Spanish Federation of Spondyloarthritis Associations (CEADE) about providing the right information to their members.

“First in Italy and then in Spain, it was really difficult to deal with the pandemic and there was a lot of uncertainty from a patient perspective,” Dr. Garrido-Cumbrera said.

Victoria Navarro-Compán, MD, PhD, of La Paz University Hospital, Madrid, who was not involved in the study, observed: “I think this reflects how important collaboration between patient organizations is in order to gather relevant data, and to do it in record time.”

The REUMAVID project was the result of initial collaboration between the Health and Territory Research Group at the University of Seville and CEADE but also involved patient organizations from six other European countries: the National Axial Spondyloarthritis Society, National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, and Arthritis Action in the United Kingdom; the French Association for the Fight against Rheumatism (AFLAR; L’Association Française de Lutte Anti-Rhumatismale); the National Association of People with Rheumatological and Rare Diseases (APMARR; Associazione Nazionale Persone con Malattie Reumatologiche e Rare) in Italy; Portuguese League Against Rheumatic Diseases (LPCDR; Liga Portuguesa contra as Doenças Reumáticas) in Portugal; the Hellenic League Against Rheumatism (ELEANA) in Greece; and the Cyprus League Against Rheumatism.

Pandemic presented ‘perfect storm’

“We’ve never been so well-communicated as we are now,” said Helena Marzo-Ortega, MD, PhD, a consultant rheumatologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in England who participated the REUMAVID project. The beginning of the pandemic was “the perfect storm” in that everybody jumped in to try to do something. This resulted in a myriad of research publications, surveys, and attempts to try to understand and make sense of what was happening.

“Research is being conducted in a more structured manner, and it’s given us a lot of very insightful information,” Dr. Marzo-Ortega added. Obviously, patients are important stakeholders to consult when conducting research into how the pandemic has affected them, she added, as they are the ones who had their lives turned upside down.

“A pandemic knows no boundaries, has no limits, everybody can be affected equally. But patients with rheumatic conditions were at particular risk because of the treatments,” she said. “You can remember how worried we all were initially, and thinking about the potential impact of immunosuppressants and many other aspects of these conditions.”

One of the many positives to come out of the pandemic is the “possibility of doing collaborative research at a worldwide level, not just European,” Dr. Marzo-Ortega said, referring to how the EULAR COVID-19 registries are part of the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance.

Furthermore, Dr. Marzo-Ortega believes the rheumatology community is now better prepared for any upsurges in COVID-19 or any new potentially pandemic-causing viruses.

“What we know now is that we have to be alert, and we know how to respond. We also know how to communicate effectively in order to be able to improve outcomes, not only for the health of the whole population, but also to protect patients such as ours,” she said.


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