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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Rheumatoid arthritis. Cat. no. PHE 252. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 02 October 2020, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Rheumatoid arthritis. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 25 August 2020, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Rheumatoid arthritis [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020 [cited 2020 Oct. 2]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2020, Rheumatoid arthritis, viewed 2 October 2020, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/chronic-musculoskeletal-conditions/rheumatoid-arthritis
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Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect anyone at any age, and may cause significant pain and disability.
Rheumatoid arthritis is most common in people aged 75 years or over
In 2017–18, there were 12,045 hospitalisations for rheumatoid arthritis, a rate of 43 per 100,000 persons
Rates of rheumatoid arthritis are slightly higher for women (2.3%) than men (1.5%)
About 456,000 Australians (1.9% of the total population) have rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis can severely affect a person’s quality of life and cause significant disability. Physical limitations, pain, fatigue and mental health issues are symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis that can impact a person’s ability to engage in daily activities (Radner et al. 2010). In Australia, rheumatoid arthritis accounted for 15% of the total burden of disease due to musculoskeletal conditions in 2015 (AIHW 2019a). Additionally, there is an economic impact to rheumatoid arthritis. In 2015–16, rheumatoid arthritis cost the Australian health system an estimated $1.2 billion, representing 9.6% of disease expenditure on musculoskeletal conditions and 1% of total disease expenditure (AIHW 2019b).
People aged 45 and over with rheumatoid arthritis had lower self-assessed health status compared with people without the condition—based on self-reported data from the ABS 2017–18 National Health Survey (NHS). People with rheumatoid arthritis were 3.2 times as likely to describe their health as poor (18%) compared with those without the condition (5.6%) (Figure 1).
Note: Rates are age-standardised to the Australian population as at 30 June 2001.
Source: AIHW analysis of ABS 2019 (Data table).
Rheumatoid arthritis is a significant cause of physical disability. Functional limitations arrive soon after the onset of the disease and worsen with time. Joint damage in the wrist is reported as the cause of most severe limitation even in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis (Koevoets et al. 2019).
Based on findings from the ABS NHS, in 2017–18, more than 2 in 3 people with rheumatoid arthritis aged 45 and over (68%) experienced ‘moderate’ to ‘very severe’ pain in the last 4 weeks. People with rheumatoid arthritis were 3.1 times as likely to have severe or very severe bodily pain in the last 4 weeks (30%) compared with those without the condition (10%) (Figure 2).
(a) Bodily pain experienced in the 4 weeks prior to interview.
People with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem (Kovic et al. 2012). Rheumatoid arthritis can affect a person’s ability to participate in work, hobbies and social and daily activities. Combined with the chronic pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, this can lead to mental health issues including stress, depression and anxiety (Arthritis Australia 2017).
People aged 45 and over with rheumatoid arthritis were 2.5 times as likely to describe very high levels of psychological distress (11%) compared with those without the condition (4.3%), according to the 2017–18 NHS (Figure 3).
(a) Psychological distress is measured using the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10), which involves 10 questions about negative emotional states experienced in the previous 4 weeks. The scores are grouped into Low: K10 score 10–15, Moderate: 16–21, High: 22–29, Very high: 30–50.
People with rheumatoid arthritis often have other chronic conditions, or ‘comorbidities’ (2 or more health conditions occurring at the same time). For this analysis, these selected comorbidities were considered:
According to self-reported data from the ABS NHS 2017–18, among people aged 45 and over with rheumatoid arthritis:
Most chronic diseases are more common in older age groups. The average age of people with rheumatoid arthritis is older than the average age of the general population, therefore people with rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to have age-related comorbidities. The rates of back problems, mental and behavioural conditions, heart, stroke, and vascular disease, asthma, osteoporosis, and COPD as comorbidities remained significantly higher for people with rheumatoid arthritis compared with those without after adjusting for age (Figure 4). There was no significant difference for diabetes, cancer or kidney disease.
It is important to note that regardless of the differences in age structures, having multiple chronic health problems is often associated with worse health outcomes (Parekh et al. 2011), in addition to a poorer quality of life (McDaid et al. 2013) and more complex clinical management and increased health costs. Rheumatoid arthritis is also associated with increased mortality due to comorbidities and related complications (Lassere et al. 2013).
The National Health Survey (NHS) uses three factors to determine whether or not a person is counted as having a particular condition: whether the condition is current, whether it is long term and whether it was medically diagnosed. The combination of these factors required for a person to count as having the condition varies according to the nature of the condition. For example, some conditions, such as diabetes and HSVD, once diagnosed, are seen to be lifelong. Even if a person no longer reports symptoms, they still count as having the condition. While other conditions, such as depression, asthma, cancer or back problems, can be lifelong, episodic or in complete remission.
Most conditions do not need the respondent to have been diagnosed by a doctor or nurse. The respondent is counted if they said they have the condition. However, in cases where the respondent said they had diabetes or HSVD and that the condition was not current, they need to have received a diagnosis to be counted.
Has the condition been diagnosed by a doctor or nurse?
no diagnosis required
not long term
Heart, stroke and vascular disease (HSVD)
Mental and behavioural conditions
Note: Please see the 2017-18 NHS User Guide for more information on the definitions of the conditions.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2018a. National Health Survey: First Results, 2017–18. ABS Cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2018b. National Health Survey: Users’ Guide, 2017–18. Viewed 1 May 2019.
ABS 2019. Microdata: National Health Survey, 2017-18, detailed microdata, DataLab. ABS cat no. 4324.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS. Findings based on AIHW analysis of ABS microdata.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019a. Australian Burden of Disease Study 2015: Interactive data on disease burden. Australian Burden of Disease Cat. no. BOD 24. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 13 June 2019.
AIHW 2019b. Disease expenditure in Australia. Cat. no. HWE 76. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 13 June 2019.
Arthritis Australia 2017. Emotions. Arthritis Australia. Viewed 4 February 2020.
Covic T, Cummin SR et al. 2012. Depression and anxiety in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: Prevalence rates based on a comparison of the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS) and the Hospital, Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS). BMC Psychiatry 12:6. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-6.
Koevoets R, Dirven L, Klarenbeek NB et al. 2013. Insights in the relationship of joint space narrowing versus erosive joint damage and physical functioning of patients with RA. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 72:870–874.
Lassere MN, Rappo J, Portek IJ et al. 2013. How many life years are lost in patients with rheumatoid arthritis? Secular cause-specific and all-cause mortality in rheumatoid arthritis, and their predictors in a long-term Australian cohort study. Internal Medicine Journal 43 (1): 66–72.
McDaid O, Hanly MJ, Richardson K et al. 2013. The effect of multiple chronic conditions on self-rated health, disability and quality of life among the older populations of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland: a comparison of two nationally representative cross-sectional surveys. British Medical Journal Open 3:e002571. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002571.
Parekh AK, Goodman RA, Gordon C et al. 2011. Managing multiple chronic conditions: a strategic framework for improving health outcomes and quality of life. Public Health Reports 126:460–471.
Radner H, Smolen JS & Aletaha D 2010. Comorbidity affects all domains of physical function and quality of life in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatology 50:381-8.
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