scientists looking at test results

Just two decades ago, hospital waiting rooms were packed with patients sitting in wheelchairs suffering, debilitated, from the pains of rheumatoid arthritis and other related diseases. “My colleagues and I did our best to treat and relieve the suffering the best we could, knowing all too well that we were limited to the few therapies available at the time,” writes Eric Matteson, a rheumatologist at the Mayo Clinic, in MedPage Today.

“Fast forward to today: The progress we’ve made in all realms of science and healthcare boggles the mind. From mapping the human genome to space-aged diagnostic tools and technologies, never in my lifetime could I have expected to see such tremendous and life-changing advances that are transforming care and the way it’s delivered,” Matteson writes.

But although the improvements are particularly pronounced in the field of rheumatology, which has seen an “explosion of new therapeutics and ways to treat rheumatic disease,” there is still a long way to go before declaring the diseases mastered.

“As we look to the future of rheumatic disease care, there are many questions that remain unanswered: Why are rheumatic diseases increasing in frequency and prevalence? Are there genetic or environmental causes? How close are we to finding a cure?” Matteson writes. “We’re nowhere close to the finish line, and these questions may never be answered if we fail to address a host of new challenges facing rheumatology care providers and researchers.”

Those challenges, he writes, include:

  1. Less than a generation away, “critical workforce shortages” loom, and an American College of Rheumatology study suggests that about half of those working in the rheumatology field will retire in the next 15 years.
  2. Meanwhile, demand for rheumatology treatments are expected to grow by 130 percent in the next 14 years. The result is poised to become a “healthcare crisis whereby patients with rheumatic diseases will have dramatically less access to specialty care.”
  3. Public rheumatology funding is drying up, and declining National Institutes of Health funding is breeding a “fiercely competitive environment” for researchers. Those who are hurt particularly hard here are early- and mid-career researchers, and at stake is potentially lost “groundbreaking discoveries in our field.”

One way forward, according to Matteson, is private funding, including the Rheumatology Research Foundation of the American College of Rheumatology, of which he is the president. Read the entire MedPage article here.