A cross-party group of MPs has called for GPs to have more training in the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis after it was revealed there has been no improvement since 2003 in the time it takes to diagnose and offer treatment for the condition.

Rheumatoid arthritis costs the NHS some £560m a year, while costs to the economy as a whole due to sick pay and disability are around £1.8bn, the group said.

The average time between onset of symptoms and first treatment is currently about nine months in England, which has not changed for seven years.

A lack of public awareness of symptoms of the disease and GPs failing to spot symptoms or refer to specialists is fuelling the lag, according to the Commons public accounts committee.

Their report says: “GPs receive on average only two hours of teaching on musculoskeletal conditions during their training, including minimal coverage of inflammatory arthritis.”

The report also points to wide variations in how much primary care trusts spend on people with arthritis.

It says: “Data presented by the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society identified variations in spending by primary care trusts on rheumatoid arthritis services of between £5.68 and £17.58 per head - a greater than threefold difference.”

An estimated 580,000 people in England have rheumatoid arthritis, with 26,000 new cases diagnosed each year.