By Nilanjana Bose, MD, as told to Susan Bernstein
I am an adult rheumatologist, so I see patients who are 18 and above, with the whole gamut of rheumatologic conditions. Every patient I see is different. For patients with classic psoriatic disease, skin psoriasis symptoms often occur before their arthritis symptoms happen. These two conditions could even develop years apart for some people. But that’s not absolute. You can develop arthritis, or joint pain and swelling, first and then later develop psoriasis.
Patients typically first come to see us for their joint swelling. Usually, psoriatic arthritis causes a peripheral joint swelling. They’ll have swelling of your fingers and toes, which can look similar to rheumatoid arthritis (RA). We do an initial workup and examine their skin, too. If they have psoriasis, including nail pitting or psoriasis plaques, or if they have a family history of psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis, this may suggest that they may have psoriatic arthritis.
COVID: Hello, Telehealth
Once the pandemic hit last year, for the first couple of months, we had to go into retreat mode at our clinic. We really had to scramble to adapt. We moved quickly into using telehealth to treat our patients. We didn’t have some of the telehealth technology, but once we understood that there were resources out there, like telehealth portals and online platforms we could use, we started adopting them.
I think our patients also adapted to telehealth fairly quickly. There were some challenges with older folks. Some didn’t have internet access or found it harder to work out the logistics of telehealth. But for those patients, we were able to conduct regular telephone visits as well.
Telehealth came with its own challenges. We had to learn how to “examine” a patient over the internet. It’s not easy, and it’s not optimal for joint or skin conditions. But a telehealth visit is any day better than a patient missing their appointment altogether and not accessing medical care.
For follow-up visits, telehealth is easy and works well. You can check in with patients and see how they’re doing on their current medications. Some of my patients really prefer telehealth for the convenience. Again, it’s not optimal. We still encourage our psoriatic disease patients to come into the office. It can be tough to see everything using the camera.
Overall, telehealth has been a fun experience, but if a patient needs to be examined in person, I ask them to come in. We’re all still masked up, practicing social distancing, and taking every precaution. We are very committed to the whole aspect of infection control with our patients.
I’ve even seen new patients using telemedicine, especially during the worse phases of the COVID pandemic. If they were referred to me by another physician because they have psoriasis, I can do the initial consultation remotely, but I still try to have them come in. Just getting in and seeing a rheumatologist to begin your treatment is ultimately the most important step with psoriatic disease. You can establish a rapport with your doctor and get the information you need.
Biologics: Game Changer for Psoriatic Disease
Biologics have totally changed the way we manage this disease. Once you’re diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, there are great treatment options out there. In the past, we had steroids, DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs), and TNF inhibitors, but now, we have IL-17 and IL-23 inhibitors, and JAK inhibitors, too.
Initially, we evaluate our new patients with lab tests and joint imaging and go over all of their symptoms. Some people will have milder psoriatic disease, and some will have more systemic symptoms. With younger patients, we may try to be more aggressive at controlling their disease, because they’re at greater risk for joint damage.
When we go over treatment options, it’s really a two-way, fluid discussion. I talk with my patients about all the risks and benefits of each treatment. If my patient is doing better after a few months, we talk about it and may re-assess the treatment plan.
It’s very rare to see people with psoriatic arthritis these days who develop chronic joint deformities. It may happen if someone was diagnosed a long time ago, before there were better treatment options, or if they were unable to access care before they came to us. The improvements are mainly due to advances in drug treatment, but also because people are more conscious of rheumatic diseases. They Google it. They just have more awareness of rheumatic conditions and that they need to see a rheumatologist.
We screen every patient. Some of them have a true inflammatory, psoriatic disease, while some do not. They may have osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia causing joint pain. Every patient deserves a thorough, complete examination. We want to diagnose these patients as early as possible to begin treatment to control their disease and prevent damage.
COVID and Other Infections: Take Extra Precautions
We were having this exact discussion with our patients before COVID, too. They are at higher risk for serious infections – not just COVID, but also other types of pneumonia and other infections. We had already been encouraging these patients to wash their hands often, take commonsense precautions, avoid close contact with sick people, and to get all their vaccinations.
Once the COVID vaccines became available, I told them, “Please get vaccinated and keep wearing your mask.” People who are on a biologic to treat their psoriatic disease are by default more cautious. For new patients who were just starting their biologics, I advised them on how to take precautions to prevent infection. We told many of our psoriatic patients, “Stay home as much as you can right now, and avoid close contact with others.” Patients do listen to this advice because they trust us as their doctors.
Making Psoriatic Patients Feel Safer
Always have a backup plan with telehealth technology! Also, I have encouraged all of my patients to enroll in our online patient portal, so we can stay connected. They can send me messages, I can update their prescriptions, and we can share test result with them.
Technology is a beautiful thing. We need to use it to the fullest advantage in modern medical care. Technology can make it easier to stay in touch with patients with psoriatic disease, who need ongoing care. But some patients may not be used to telehealth, so they can experience some frustration at first. Be patient, take your time to learn to use these tools, and help your patients adapt. Don’t give up if something doesn’t work right at first.
Face-to-face interaction is still very important when you are working with patients with psoriatic arthritis. It can be difficult to form a new patient/doctor relationship without any in-person component.
After they’re diagnosed, some patients continue to see me virtually, and it seems like we are really able to get to know each other well. Telehealth is a safe, secure environment for patients. They’re in their home or office, or even in their car. Sometimes, when I’m talking with a psoriatic patient over telehealth, I see them taking notes. That’s good! Some people find that they’re less anxious when they’re in a telehealth appointment instead of being in their doctor’s office.