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Focus on Options for Lowering Osteoarthritis Treatment Costs

Published February 5, 2003

Washington, D.C. – February 25, 2003 – At a time when older Americans are seeking ways to lower their health care costs, a leading aging organization has important advice for more than 20 million older Americans who suffer from osteoarthritis (OA): Talk to your doctor about starting with those medications that experts say may be the most cost-effective.

Responding to new survey findings that the vast majority of Americans are concerned about the long-term costs of treating chronic conditions such as OA, the Alliance for Aging Research has launched Making $ense of Arthritis Pain, a new campaign designed to help seniors talk to their physicians about choosing the most cost-effective OA treatments.

The impetus for the new campaign is the release of two sets of medical guidelines for the treatment of OA, one issued by the American College of Rheumatology and the other published by the American Pain Society. Following the principles of evidence-based medicine, these guidelines advise starting with non-pharmacological treatments such as exercise and weight loss, in combination with the simple analgesic, acetaminophen. Based on these medical guidelines, the campaign stresses that people with mild to moderate OA pain may be able to get the same symptom relief from over-the-counter pain remedies such as acetaminophen as from more expensive prescription arthritis medications.

Reinforcing these conclusions are the findings of a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School, Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which also found that acetaminophen and other over-the-counter pain relievers are the most cost-effective first line treatments for the joint pain and stiffness of OA. The study used a cost analysis of strategies for treating OA of the hip and knee, and took into account the direct costs of the different treatments, as well as potential side effects, such as GI bleeding. Other independent cost analysis studies have shown that prescription drugs for OA can cost up to ten times more than over-the-counter medications. (For specific brand cost comparisons, go to

“As a painful chronic condition for which there is no cure at present, osteoarthritis exacts a heavy toll on older Americans in terms of the pain and disability, and because of the costs of treatments,” said Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research. “Through this campaign, we hope to encourage more older Americans to talk with their physicians about the most cost-effective ways to manage their OA symptoms, recognizing that expert guidelines indicate that in many cases exercise, physical therapy and over-the-counter pain medications are sufficient to manage their pain and improve mobility and function.”

To raise awareness that older Americans can lower the costs of managing OA symptoms by discussing treatment options with their physicians, the Alliance will reach out to the public and health practitioners. The group will utilize national publicity, provide information on the Alliance’s Web site (, and mail information and tools to physicians to promote solutions based on the recommendations contained in the arthritis treatment guidelines.

New Consumer Survey Finds Knowledge Gap Between the Public and Practitioners; Points to the Need for Education

The campaign is also the outgrowth of new survey data, which points to a major knowledge gap between the public and practitioners about how to treat OA symptoms. Conducted for the Alliance by Harris Interactive, this survey of 1,000 adults aged 18 and over finds that patients overwhelmingly want to talk to their physicians about cost-effective ways to treat OA, but lack the necessary information. Moreover, the survey finds that most Americans feel ill equipped to discuss the costs of treating chronic conditions, including osteoarthritis. While nearly nine in ten (86 percent) say they would be worried about the cost of managing this ongoing medical problem, another 68 percent admit that deciding which treatments are most cost-effective is difficult to do without physician guidance. Because of these concerns, the survey finds that many consumers are looking for information that would aid them in their discussions with their physicians. The encouraging news, according to the survey, is that virtually all Americans (96 percent) believe OA sufferers will benefit from learning about the arthritis treatment guidelines, which is the goal of the campaign being conducted by the Alliance for Aging Research.

Moreover, three-quarters of the public (75 percent) say that they would be willing to talk with their physicians about the cost of different medications, especially if they had the information upon which to base this discussion.

“An important message of this public education effort is to encourage a better dialogue between OA sufferers and their physicians about managing the relief of mild to moderate joint pain,” said Deborah S. Litman, MD, assistant clinical professor of rheumatology at Georgetown University Medical School and an advisor to the campaign. “With the range of treatment options now available, this dialogue is more important than ever before.”

OA Is Leading Cause of Disability in Older Americans

The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis affects an estimated 20.7 million Americans, mostly after age 45. Considered the leading cause of disability in older people, OA affects the hands and weight-bearing joints such as knees, hips, feet, and the back, and is characterized by the breakdown of cartilage, the part of the joint that cushions the end of bones. Cartilage breakdown causes bones to rub against other bones, resulting in pain and loss of movement.

Because OA is so pervasive and disabling, OA has a sizable impact on the nation’s economy, resulting in 7 million doctor visits a year. As a result, the Arthritis Foundation reports that treating OA and other forms of arthritis costs the economy approximately $124.8 billion annually, including medical expenses and lost productivity. More significantly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects these costs to increase dramatically given current population projections. Specifically, CDC projects that OA and the other forms of arthritis will affect over 18 percent of all people in the U.S. – or nearly 60 million Americans – by 2020, which is three times as many Americans as are affected by OA today.

The Making $ense of Arthritis Pain is by an unrestricted grant by McNeil Consumer Healthcare

Founded in 1986, the Alliance for Aging Research is a nonprofit, independent organization dedicated to supporting and accelerating the pace of medical discoveries to vastly improve the universal human experience of aging. The Alliance combines the interests of top scientists, public officials, business executives and foundation leaders to promote a greater national investment in research and new technologies that will prepare our nation for the coming senior boom, and improve the quality of life for today’s older generation.

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