Many RA patients are resistant to DMARD therapy. Here's how to address this obstacle head-on

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Medically reviewed by David Ozeri, MD, FACP, FACR
Published February 24, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients are nonadherent with treatment for various reasons, including fear of the medications, not wanting to appear sick, and desiring to maintain control over their health. 

  • Sometimes nonadherence reflects deep beliefs—ie, inflammation is a natural process that shouldn’t be suppressed, or pain is an indicator of hard work, and a point of pride. 

  • It’s important for physicians to get to the root of nonadherence and address this issue directly. Motivational interviewing is a good strategy to address nonadherence.

There’s no question that coping with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) involves difficult challenges. For one, the prospect of taking disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) with aggressive-sounding names such as methotrexate for the rest of their life can be daunting for some patients. Other patients may propose using holistic or naturopathic treatments instead of medications that they believe are unnatural and harmful.

The reality, however, is that current rheumatology guidelines advise "treating to target"—that is, treating RA with DMARDs to achieve low disease activity or remission. Fear of DMARDs among patients, or a desire to go “natural” with treatment, represent obstacles to adherence that clinicians need to understand and address head-on. 

Patient resistance to DMARDs

Many physicians don’t prescribe therapy to RA patients according to treat-to-target guidelines. But this isn’t necessarily a result of physician oversight—patients play a role, too. 

“One contributing factor to this is when patients resist (refuse to adopt, avoid initiating/implementing, or discontinue) DMARD medication regimens recommended or prescribed by physicians,” wrote the authors of a qualitative study published in Arthritis Care & Research.[]

In the study, US researchers interviewed 48 RA patients. Overall, 91.7% were taking DMARDs at the time of the study, but 29% of participants had resisted medication at some point.

The investigators identified five themes that described patients’ motivations for resisting DMARDs:

  • Fear of medications

  • Desire to maintain control over health

  • Denying “sick” identity

  • Disappointment with treatment

  • Feeling overwhelmed due to the cognitive burden of deciding 

The researchers also identified factors that help patients overcome resistance to the recommended treatment. The desire to return to normal life strongly motivated patients to accept DMARD treatments, despite the associated adverse effects. And fear of disability also motivated RA patients to take DMARDs.

Austrian researchers provided additional insights into why some patients object to RA therapy. Among the 131 patients they interviewed, 43 were non-adherent. Results from the study were published in Arthritis Research & Therapy.[]

Some patients simply had strong opinions, based on beliefs or values that they accepted without question. One such belief was that pain was an indicator of the hard work (usually manual) they had done during their life, and therefore something to be proud of. Another belief held that inflammation was a natural process that shouldn’t be suppressed.

In explaining why it is important for physicians to understand and address patients’ resistance to RA treatment, the Arthritis Care & Research authors summed it up this way: “Patients’ resistance to DMARD treatment regimens can increase the risk of suboptimal treatment, prolong time spent with painful symptoms, and lead to progression of joint damage, diminishing patients’ current and future quality of life.”

Related: Top reasons RA patients quit their treatment plan

Addressing the problem

A number of approaches have been studied for their effectiveness in counteracting nonadherence. 

Patient education. When presented with intentional nonadherence, physicians should try to educate the patient.

Increasing the patient’s knowledge about the disease and its treatment, and addressing any concerns or fears about potential side effects from medication, may help to provide solutions for intentional nonadherence, according to the authors of a review published in Patient Preference and Adherence.[]

Motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing can be used to help uncover the patient’s barriers to adherence. This patient-centered form of communication supports the patient in examining their ambivalence and then coming up with their own solutions to the problem.

"[Motivational interviewing is] is a balance between directing, advising, and supporting the patient on the one hand and encouraging the patient to find possible solutions on the other. "

Patient Preference and Adherence

Addressing negative feelings. Authors of the qualitative study published in Arthritis Care & Research had the following take on improving adherence.

 “Our findings suggest the need for interventions that better address negative feelings arising during patients’ decision process. Such interventions may promote acceptance of recommended therapies and develop patients’ confidence in navigating treatment decisions. Physicians, as patients’ trusted advisors regarding illness and treatment, are in an ideal position to provide such emotional support,” they wrote.

Providing appropriate information. The researchers writing in Arthritis Care & Research noted that information overload could contribute to patients’ deciding to delay treatment for fear of making the “wrong” choice. Too much information can leave patients overwhelmed and uncertain about the decision process.

Patients desire certain kinds of information, particularly about risk. Other than just a list of adverse effects, they want to know the magnitude of risk associated with each one, which risks are relevant to them, and how to manage risks.

To this end, physicians can provide decision aids that explain benefits and risks in a nonthreatening and balanced way. These decision aids can help to put things in perspective. 

Applying stratified interventions. Authors of the study published in Arthritis Care & Research recommended the use of stratified and multicomponent interventions when addressing nonadherence in RA.

“Personalized medicine claims that we need stratified interventions relevant to subgroups of patients based on biomarkers. In addition to biomarkers, psycho-social markers, including personal attitudes, strong opinions, cultural values and norms, environmental factors, and so forth, derived from qualitative data such as from our study, could be used to further stratify patients,” the authors wrote.

What this means for you

RA patients may resist taking medications for various reasons. Physicians should tackle nonadherence head-on and figure out why their patients refuse to benefit from DMARDs. Motivational interviewing can be helpful when exploring the hesitancy in these patients. Decision aids can also help patients better evaluate the potential risks of treatment.

This article is part of Room for Better Rheum Care, where physicians and patients share the latest research, tips, and strategies for raising treatment expectations and delivering improved care in RA, PsA, and nr-AxSpA.

Read Next: My battle with RA: Managing communication challenges with my care team
Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter