$2.7M role to target ‘poor cousin’ of chronic diseases

Painful arthritic, rheumatic and other bone and joint conditions which cost Australia an estimated $24 billion a year will receive long overdue attention with the appointment of Dutch rheumatology expert Johannes ‘Hans’ Nossent as the inaugural Chair of Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Medicine at The University of Western Australia.

The position, a partnership and research collaboration between UWA, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA, will be officially launched tonight.

It involves $2.7 million in funding for an initial five years and will see Winthrop Professor Nossent training medical students, undertaking clinical sessions at SCGH, and spearheading research into rheumatic and musculoskeletal conditions.

Winthrop Professor Nossent said there was a remarkable and regrettable lack of services for rheumatic conditions, which affected nearly one in five Australians and were at least as preventable as other major chronic diseases such as diabetes.

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. There was also much misunderstanding about the diseases, 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.”

The appointment is the result of intense community fundraising by Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA, which has pushed for a professorship to focus on musculoskeletal research and education for almost 40 years. The organisation will contribute $962,269 to the five-year partnership, with SCGH contributing $996,100, and $747,889 from UWA.

Arthrities & Osteoporosis WA executive director Ric Forlano, who helped recruit Professor Nossent, said the role would shine a much-needed spotlight on a suite of conditions which had been overlooked for too long.

“It’s something we’ve been trying for 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,” Mr Forlano said.

“We need to get awareness and research around these conditions up to the same level as diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Arthritis and rheumatic conditions are widespread and debilitating but they’re trivialised by everyone from bureaucrats to some people in the health system – until they get it themselves and realise the impact it has on your daily life.”

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.”

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 Public Affairs)                                               (+61 8) 6488 7977 /(+61 4) 32 637 716

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