"Rheumatology services in St Albans"

About: NHS West Hertfordshire

(as the patient),

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 2008. My GP suggested I should be referred to a local GP with a Special Interest. I, in my ignorance, agreed because I thought it would mean that I would get specialist treatment more quickly, as local hospital provision was overstretched. My mistake. I was made to wait 18 weeks (which is precisely the government target limit for accessing rheumatic services) to see this guy who worked in a local surgery. I found this very stressful, because I had realised by then that my condition was chronic and all the literature I was reading recommended early treatment with DMARDs (disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) to prevent irreversible joint damage.

When I saw him he gave me steroids and painkillers and suggested my RA was mild, which it was, but since I had had the relevant symptoms for over a year and joint damage can still accumulate, I was still quite worried. I took the steroids and was given another appointment to see him six weeks later. In the meantime, I did some more reading. Steroids are meant to be temporary and it wasn't recommended that patients stay on them for a long time as the secondary effects can be horrendous.

At my next appointment he wanted to put me on more steroids and suggested that my RA was a reaction to an infection and would be temporary. I disputed this pointing out that my symptoms had started the previous summer and requested that he consider putting me on a DMARD. He visibly sighed and said he would then have to refer me to the rheumatology department in a local hospital. I asked how long I would be waiting since I had already waited 24 weeks and not gotten access to effective treatment. In the event it was only about a month. When I saw the specialist at the hospital he confirmed from x-rays to my hands that I had RA and there was already some damage (hopefully not too much) and prescribed Sulphasalazine which I am still on.

The moral of this story? My advice is, don't let them refer you to a GP with a special interest here in Herts, if you have RA, it's a waste of time as they cannot prescribe specialist treatment and they are being used to relieve the pressure on the rheumatology departments. Go straight to a hospital rheumatology department and see a rheumatologist.

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