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Tech-Driven Study Tackles Lupus in New Zealand

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Health researchers at the University of Waikato, in collaboration with health practitioners, are embarking on a study to address significant gaps in diagnosing and managing systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a chronic and unpredictable disease. This study uses a digital technology-driven approach to gather essential data to enhance understanding and establish guidelines for this relatively understudied condition in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

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SLE is a complex autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues, often leading to severe complications such as lupus nephritis, which can result in impaired kidney function or failure. Despite its potential for organ failure and premature death, there is a shortage of data and clear diagnostic and management guidelines within New Zealand. During the study, Dr Ross Lawrenson, Professor of Population Health at the University of Waikato, is leading this research initiative to bridge the knowledge gap and improve patient outcomes.

Patients with SLE typically present at hospitals with serious complications, emphasising the need for comprehensive data at the general practice level. Dr Lawrenson stresses the importance of understanding pathways to reduce hospitalisation rates and improve overall care for SLE patients.

SLE is more prevalent in women and is usually diagnosed in individuals aged 15 to 45 years old. Symptoms include arthritic-like joint swelling and pain, fatigue, skin rashes, and urinary issues. Due to the lack of a specific treatment for lupus, effective management is crucial for patients to lead relatively everyday lives.

Dr Jenny Wong, a General Practitioner (GP), contributes to the study, working with GP databases across selected Waikato practices. The research aims to understand diagnosis rates, the time between the first presentation of symptoms and diagnosis, and other relevant metrics stratified by age, gender, and ethnicity. By leveraging digital tools and databases, the team aims to create a comprehensive dataset that can inform evidence-based guidelines and improve the overall management of SLE.

The research project is made possible by highlighting the importance of collaborative efforts between academic institutions, health practitioners, and community health groups. Professor Lawrenson acknowledged that it emphasises its role in facilitating GPs like Dr Wong to engage in research that directly benefits their day-to-day practice. This collaborative approach between health providers and the University ensures robust research outcomes translating into practical improvements for individual patients.

Dr Chunhuan Lao, a biostatistician and Senior Research Fellow for SLE research provides critical project design and statistical support. The study also benefits from the expertise of Te Whatu Ora Rheumatologist Dr Douglas White and specialist advisor Dr Rawiri Keenan, Associate Professor. The team also includes local Waikato Māori health providers to ensure a holistic and culturally sensitive approach to the research.

Earlier research at the University, led by Dr Lao, utilised hospital records to identify SLE statistics. This preliminary work revealed that approximately 42 people in every 100,000 have SLE in New Zealand, with higher rates observed in women, Māori, and Pacific populations. The research also highlighted a mortality rate for SLE patients four times that of the general population.

Expanding upon initial findings, the two-year study seeks to furnish crucial insights into systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) burden and contribute to formulating guidelines for its diagnosis and management. Through a holistic strategy that integrates digital technology, statistical analysis, and medical expertise, this research represents a noteworthy advancement in comprehending the intricacies of SLE and endeavours to enhance outcomes for individuals grappling with this chronic condition.

This study’s integration of digital technology reflects a contemporary approach to healthcare research. The collaboration between health researchers at the University of Waikato and medical practitioners underscores the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation in addressing complex health challenges.

“Its outcomes hold the promise of enhancing our understanding of SLE and shaping the future landscape of healthcare, fostering more inclusive and effective strategies for managing chronic diseases,” concluded Dr Lawrenson.


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