People with arthritis often have to wait "unacceptable" amounts of time to see a specialist, researchers have found.
The British Society for Rheumatology (BSR) claims that there is an optimal 12-week window of opportunity for starting early, aggressive treatment.
When treatment is started early, medical costs, disability and work limitations can be reduced, BSR has said.
A study conducted for the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society found that a third (30%) of patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis between 2011/13 had waited more than 12 weeks to see a specialist.
However, between 2000/05, only a fifth (20%) had to wait that amount of time.
Dr Marwan Bukhari, consultant rheumatologist at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, said: “This is disappointing news as it highlights several steps that delay patients getting timely care.
“The problems as seen by clinicians are threefold: firstly, recognition of the symptoms by the patients, which can be helped by raising public awareness of the symptoms of inflammation, and secondly, the recognition of the symptoms in primary care and this requires collaborative work and education in primary care in order to shorten symptom onset to referral time. Lastly, rheumatology departments need to have adequate capacity to see these patients urgently when referred and this varies from department to department.”
Rheumatic diseases represent a large health problem to the UK. The cost to society is estimated at £5.7 billion a year, and accounts for the loss of 10 million working days.