ACR looks for continued growth in awareness of rheumatic diseases with latest annual campaign


With the help of a key celebrity spokesperson, the American College of Rheumatology is hoping Rheumatic Disease Awareness Month (RDAM) will continue to raise the profile of the related illnesses and help more patients recognize their symptoms and get on the road to treatment.

This year, the celebrity tapped to lead the now-annual campaign that began in September 2016 is tennis champion Venus Williams, who has been competing while battling Sjögren’s syndrome. She was diagnosed in 2011.

Having a high-profile individual like Venus Williams will “bring more awareness to not a specific illness but just rheumatic diseases in general,” Suleman Bhana, MD, chair of the ACR’s marketing and communications committee, said in an interview, adding that it is a way to help get attention from patients and their family members to be more aware of what they are facing when afflicted with a rheumatic disease.

It also helps to drive traffic to a website (simpletasks.org) set up to help build a community around rheumatic diseases, he noted.

“By signing up on the website, patients and others can get connected with wellness articles and can be informed about any advocacy opportunities in their local area or the national level,” said Dr. Bhana, a rheumatologist with Crystal Run Healthcare in Middletown, N.Y. “It helps us a lot from an ACR point of view just by getting the word out about rheumatic diseases.”

Dr. Bhana said that part of the success of the RDAM campaign is being measured by the number of people who sign up for the website. “Last year we had about 1,600 people sign up, which was more than double from the previous year and we are hoping to do even better this year now that we have Venus Williams as our spokesperson.”

But the campaign involves more than just a celebrity spokesperson and an online community to build awareness for rheumatic diseases and their associated symptoms and treatments. The ACR is working with patients to make sure their voices are heard on Capitol Hill to help ensure proper access to medical care and those treatments.

This year, the ACR – along with more than 100 advocates – met with members of Congress to push for policies that will benefit people with rheumatic diseases. One key item on the agenda targets the use of step therapy.

“This year the ACR’s Government Affairs Committee had a list of several pieces of legislation that they are looking at heavily. [One bill is about] having brakes on what is called step therapy, which is a fairly egregious practice by many insurers that forces patients to use different medications than what the physician and patient decide in their mutual doctor-patient relationship before they can use the medicine that was originally decided upon,” he said. “The reasons for this practice mostly are financial in that insurers get kickbacks from certain pharmaceutical companies, and that is what they term as preferred drugs. It’s a lot more than just cost savings. It’s about the insurers financially benefiting from patients rather than doing the right thing and preserving the doctor-patient relationship.”

One bill in particular that has been highlighted by the ACR is the Safe Step Act of 2019 (H.R. 2279), introduced by Rep. Raul Ruiz, MD (D-Calif.), and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, DPM (R-Ohio), would put limits on step therapy and create a clear process for patients and physicians to seek exemptions.

Other legislative actions that patients and the ACR were advocating for during the visits for RDAM included the EMPOWER for Health Act (H.R. 2781), which would help increase the number of pediatric subspecialists, including pediatric rheumatologists, through loan repayment for health professionals who agree to work at least 2 years in pediatric medicine, and the REDI Act (H.R. 1554), which would defer the accumulation on student loan interest while future doctors serve in a medical internship or residency program.

“The reality of pediatrics is that they don’t get well compensated as a pediatric rheumatologist subspecialist, so there is an ultimate financial disincentive for training pediatricians to go into rheumatology,” Dr. Bhana said. “So we are trying to get support for loan repayment for pediatric rheumatologists or rheumatology fellowship programs, which may help to incentivize young pediatricians to go into rheumatology to at least expand access to care.”

The RDAM campaign also provides useful contacts for an annual survey that the ACR conducts. This year’s survey found that access issues for both physicians and treatments persist, informing the agenda for the advocacy on Capitol Hill.

For example, the 2019 survey found that more than 60% of respondents had to wait at least 31 days from a physician referral to an initial rheumatologist appointment. Dr. Bhana noted that, in his practice, the wait can be 3 months or longer. A little more than 36% of respondents were able to get that initial appointment after referral in 30 days or less.

Additionally, nearly 47% of respondents were subjected to step therapy in the past year.

Treatment pricing was also raised as a concern in the survey, with a little more than 57% of respondents reporting difficulty affording treatments in the past year, and 25% reporting annual out-of-pocket spending at greater than $1,000, with more than 6% reporting annual out-of-pocket spending of greater than $5,000.

Despite all the challenges that lay ahead, Dr. Bhana believes that, as the campaign continues in its fourth year, it is having a positive impact.

“I think there is more awareness among patients to look up their symptoms and prompt their providers to look into, if not test for, rheumatic diseases, direct referrals, and I think because of these campaigns, we’ve gotten some indication that from a social media awareness that more patients are talking about it, about trying to get into seeing a physician.”

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