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Meet the scientists helping us solve the treatment maze

Meet the scientists

Professor Elaine Hay is the director of the Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre at Keele University.

After recent success developing a stratified approach to back pain, she and her team now want to discover if stratified approaches could help the right treatments reach a wider group of people with joint pains and osteoarthritis. We asked her about her research into back pain treatment, and what the findings could mean for people living with arthritis.

Arthritis Research UK: Professor Hay, what was the problem facing people trying to access the right treatment for their back pain?

Professor Elaine Hay: The problem for GPs and other health professionals was spotting who, amongst the large numbers of patients they see with back pain, is likely to get better with simple advice and reassurance, and who might benefit from further treatment from a physiotherapist.

ARUK: How is a stratified approach to back pain helping doctors make decisions with patients today?

EH: Through our research, we developed a new screening tool. It’s a questionnaire given to patients when they visit their general practitioner. The questions have been designed to pick up whether a patient’s risk of back pain becoming persistent is low, medium or high. This in turn leads to them being offered different treatments.

ARUK: What does this mean for people with back pain?

EH: Our research showed that this new approach to managing back pain in primary care, where decisions about which treatments people are recommended are made systematically, guided by the questionnaire score, is more effective than an approach which simply relies on doctors’ or physiotherapists clinical intuition.  

ARUK: Is this having a wider impact as well?

EH: Yes. This new approach is being implemented by GP practices and physiotherapy services around the UK. Patients report liking the new approach because they are quickly directed to the most appropriate treatment and take fewer days off work due to back problems. It also reduces costs to the health service and therefore has important implications for commissioners and providers of back pain services.

ARUK: You’re now looking at a stratified approach for other patients, including those with joint pains in other places apart from only the back.

EH: That’s right. We’re in the process of developing similar approaches for people consulting their general practitioner with other painful musculoskeletal problems and osteoarthritis.

ARUK: What challenges do people with joint pain and arthritis face, when it comes to getting the right treatment?

EH: There is wide variation in the primary care patients get, which means that some patients are offered unnecessary treatments, while others are denied access to effective treatments. This makes primary care inefficient, and means that patients don’t always get the care they need at the right time.

All of us at Arthritis Research UK are so excited about what Professor Hay’s research could achieve. But to make sure even more people can live pain free, we need your help. Please donate to our appeal today.

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