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System-level performance measures of access to rheumatology care: a population-based retrospective study of trends over time and the impact of regional rheumatologist supply in Ontario, Canada, 2002-2019

Barber CEH, Lacaille D, Croxford R, Barnabe C, Marshall DA, Abrahamowicz M, Xie H, Avina-Zubieta JA, Esdaile JM, Hazlewood G, Faris P, Katz S, MacMullan P, Mosher D, Widdifield J. BMC Rheumatol. 2022; 6(1):86. Epub 2022 Dec 27. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s41927-022-00315-6


Objective — To determine whether there were improvements in rheumatology care for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) between 2002 and 2019 in Ontario, Canada, and to evaluate the impact of rheumatologist regional supply on access.

Methods — We conducted a population-based retrospective study of all individuals diagnosed with RA between January 1, 2002 and December 31, 2019. Performance measures evaluated were: (i) percentage of RA patients seen by a rheumatologist within one year of diagnosis; and (ii) percentage of individuals with RA aged 66 years and older (whose prescription drugs are publicly funded) dispensed a disease modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) within 30 days after initial rheumatologist visit. Logistic regression was used to assess whether performance improved over time and whether the improvements differed by rheumatology supply, dichotomized as < 1 rheumatologist per 75,000 adults versus ≥1 per 75,000.

Results — Among 112,494 incident RA patients, 84% saw a rheumatologist within one year: The percentage increased over time (adjusted odds ratio (OR) 2019 vs. 2002 = 1.43, p < 0.0001) and was consistently higher in regions with higher rheumatologist supply (OR = 1.73, 95% CI 1.67–1.80). Among seniors who were seen by a rheumatologist within 1 year of their diagnosis the likelihood of timely DMARD treatment was lower among individuals residing in regions with higher rheumatologist supply (OR = 0.90 95% CI 0.83–0.97). These trends persisted after adjusting for other covariates.

Conclusion — While access to rheumatologists and treatment improved over time, shortcomings remain, particularly for DMARD use. Patients residing in regions with higher rheumatology supply were more likely to access care but less likely to receive timely treatment.

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