Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Whether it's the 11-year-old who has to sit by while his schoolmates play soccer, the grandma who can't open a jar, or the 30-year-old who can't get out of bed and has to miss yet another week of work - everyone knows someone affected by arthritis or some equally painful bone and joint condition.

So prevalent are arthritic, systemic autoimmune and other bone and joint conditions - one of the leading causes of chronic pain and disability in Australia - that they cost the nation an estimated $24 billion a year in medical care, lost productivity and related costs.  Yet even though they affect an estimated one in 10 Australians, such conditions are still regarded as the poor relations of chronic disease.

It's a situation Dutch rheumatology expert Johannes ‘Hans' Nossent hopes to turn around after being appointed the inaugural Chair of Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Medicine at The University of Western Australia.

Winthrop Professor Nossent was recruited after a worldwide search for someone to fill the position - created after a nearly 40-year campaign by Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA to establish a professorship dedicated to the discipline.

The role - a $2.7 million collaboration between UWA, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA - was launched last night.  The partnership involves funding for an initial five years and will see Professor Nossent training medical students, undertaking clinical sessions at SCGH, and spearheading research into rheumatic and musculoskeletal conditions.

Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA executive director Ric Forlano, who helped recruit Professor Nossent, said the aim was to secure a permanent academic leader at UWA who would become a champion in teaching and discovering better treatments for conditions such as arthritis, which were often trivialised by those who did not understand how severely they affected sufferers.

Winthrop Professor Nossent said there was a remarkable and regrettable lack of services for patients with rheumatic conditions, some of which were at least as frequent and as preventable as other major chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus.

He said it was a continuing source of worry that patients with rheumatic conditions were not a priority in the health care system, especially since - like diabetes - rheumatic conditions severely affected quality of life and often led to long term complications, including a shorter lifespan.  He agreed the diseases were often misunderstood, with people in both the medical profession and the community dismissing them as the aches and pains of old age and something people simply had to put up with.

"Many do not appreciate that these are often very severe diseases that affect a wide range of people, including children and people in their 20s, 30s, 40s," Professor Nossent said.  "These are chronic conditions they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, because we have no cure yet.

"I don't think I'll be able to find a cure within five years, but the important thing is there is much that can be done in terms of infrastructure and awareness to improve the quality of life of these people."

Professor Nossent, who took up his new position in June after spending two years as staff rheumatologist at the Royal Darwin Hospital, said he would focus predominantly on research into systemic inflammatory auto-immune diseases, and education.

"One of the main things we will be doing is reviewing the medical curriculum and placing more emphasis on rheumatic diseases.  We want medical students - our future GPs and physicians - to understand the impact of these conditions both on patients and society, in direct medical costs and loss of productivity," he said.  "We also want them to be able to diagnose these conditions early and correctly, because that is the key to improving outcomes."

Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA will contribute $962,269 to the five-year partnership, with SCGH contributing $996,100, and $747,889 from UWA.

Mr Forlano said the role would shine a much-needed spotlight on a suite of conditions which had been overlooked for too long and which deserved the same awareness, research and support services as high profile diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

"It's something we've been trying for a long time and we are hoping it will increase the profile of rheumatology and bring it to the forefront, rather than being the poor cousin as far as major health diseases go," he said.

UWA's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Community and Engagement), Kent Anderson, welcomed the appointment and said it was the result of a long-term effort by Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA.

"They have been working very hard towards this," Professor Anderson said.  "It's a major achievement and the University looks forward to being able to improve the understanding and awareness of this debilitating set of diseases."

Media references

Winthrop Professor Johannes Nossent (School of Medicine and Pharmacology)  (+61 8) 6151 1056
Ric Forlano (Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA)  (+61 8) 9388 2199
David Stacey (UWA Media Manager)  (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716


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