The value of inquiring about functional impairments for early identification of inflammatory arthritis: a large cross-sectional derivation and validation study from the Netherlands

Bastiaan van Dijk, Hanna W van Steenbergen, Ellis Niemantsverdriet, Elisabeth Brouwer, Annette van der Helm-van Mil

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OBJECTIVES: Healthcare professionals other than rheumatologists experience difficulties in detecting early inflammatory arthritis (IA) by joint examination. Self-reported symptoms are increasingly considered as helpful and could be incorporated in online tools to assist healthcare professionals, but first their discriminative ability must be assessed. As part of this effort, we evaluated whether inquiring about functional impairments could aid early IA identification.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional derivation and validation study.

SETTING: Data from two Early Arthritis Recognition Clinics (EARC) in the Netherlands were studied, which are easy access outpatient rheumatology clinics intermediary between primary and secondary care for patients in whom general practitioners suspect but are unsure about IA presence.

PARTICIPANTS: Between 2010 and 2014, 997 patients consecutively visited the Leiden-EARC (derivation cohort). Patients consecutively visiting the Groningen EARC (2010-2014, n=506) and Leiden-EARC (2015-2018, n=557) served as validation cohorts.

PRIMARY AND SECONDARY OUTCOME MEASURES: Physical functioning was assessed with the Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability-Index (HAQ); IA presence by physical joint examination by rheumatologists. HAQ questions were studied individually regarding discriminative ability for IA presence. For the best discriminating question, ORs and positive predictive values (PPVs) for IA presence were determined.

RESULTS: IA was ascertained in 43% (derivation cohort), 53% and 35% (validation cohorts). In the derivation cohort, IA presence associated with higher mean HAQ scores (0.84 vs 0.73, p=0.003). One question on difficulties with dressing equalled discriminative ability of the total HAQ score. 'Difficulties with dressing' yielded ORs for IA presence of 1.8 (95% CI 1.4 to 2.4) in the derivation cohort; 2.0 (1.4 to 2.9) and 2.1 (1.5 to 3.1) in the validation cohorts. After adjustments for clinical characteristics these were 1.7 (1.3 to 2.3), 1.6 (1.1 to 2.5) and 1.9 (1.2 to 2.9). PPVs (probabilities of IA for positive answers) ranged 42%-60% and negative predictive values (probabilities of no IA for negative answers) ranged 57%-74%.

CONCLUSIONS: Patient-reported difficulties with dressing in patients with suspected IA associated with actual IA presence. Although further validation is required, for example, in primary care, this simple question could be of help in future early IA detection tools for healthcare professionals with limited experience in joint examination.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere040148
Number of pages7
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 13-Dec-2020


  • rheumatology
  • primary care
  • CARE

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