John Esdaile, MD, MPH, FRCPC

Scientific Director, Arthritis Research Center of Canada - Adjunct Professor of Medicine and Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary - Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia
Researcher of the month: 
Jun 2015

With roughly one in six Canadians aged 15 years and older living with the disease, arthritis is the most common cause of chronic disability in Canada, and the most expensive.  According to the Arthritis Alliance of Canada, lost productivity, absenteeism and increased health care spending translate into an estimated cost of $33 billion to the Canadian economy.

The tremendous impact of arthritis cannot be limited to ledgers, however, and the lives of 4.6 million Canadians are affected each and every day by the disease's chronic joint pain, stiffness and swelling. The result is not only significant disability, but a poor, and sometimes even debilitating, quality of life.

While more rheumatologists will be needed to address the rising prevalence of arthritis in our aging population, Dr. John Esdaile believes we need a new vision of how to tackle the growing human and financial costs of arthritis health care.

"Family medicine training programs fail the person with arthritis and this must change," says Dr. Esdaile, Canada's most prominent and internationally respected rheumatologist. "With appropriate training, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, nurses, and fitness instructors must start taking over some arthritis care from physicians."

As the Scientific Director and prime mover behind the creation of Arthritis Research Canada (ARC), Dr. Esdaile has been a champion of a new approach for arthritis research in Canada by bringing together arthritis consumers (patients) and research groups to become more involved in educating the public, physicians and other health professionals about arthritis prevention, early symptoms of arthritis, and the need for early intervention. 

“Members of our Patient Advisory Board work with our scientists in refining research questions, helping design studies and doing research”, explains Dr. Esdaile. "They also assist in translating results to the public, policy makers and health care professionals."

When founded in 2000, ARC - a state-of-the-art facility situated at the University of British Columbia - was staffed with only one scientist, one student, one research assistant and one secretary. Just 15 years later, ARC includes more than 70 research staff at the Universities of British Columbia, Calgary and Laval.  

ARC has attracted some of the country's brightest minds to its ranks, helping to establish Canada as a global leader in arthritis research. To this end, the Province of British Columbia recently awarded Arthritis Research Canada with a $3 million funding grant in order to accelerate arthritis research, particularly in the areas of work disability prevention, improvements in pain management, and reducing health care costs related to persons with arthritis. 

Investments like this are what have helped Dr. Esdaile shine a spotlight on arthritis research and open further doors in terms of innovative funding and awareness opportunities. One such example is a recently formed national partnership with the Arthritis Consumer Experts and Shoppers Drug Mart/Pharmaprix in which ARC has developed an arthritis awareness campaign that offers free arthritis prevention, screening and treatment information provided by pharmacists at more than 1,200 Shoppers stores across Canada.

The program includes a self-administered joint exam, an interactive joint exam and a questionnaire. "This screening program is helping Canadians obtain earlier diagnoses and better manage their arthritis," explains Dr. Esdaile." It is also the first and only arthritis screening program in Canada designed with women in mind, as arthritis affects two out of three Canadian women."

As a pioneer of such collaborative projects to expand Canada’s role in arthritis research, Dr. Esdaile's achievements are humbling. Having completed his undergraduate medical training at McGill University in Montreal, he went on to post-graduate training in Montreal, Toronto, London, England and New Haven, CT, eventually returning to Canada to serve as Head of Rheumatology first at McGill University and then the University of British Columbia.

His areas of research interest include rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and osteoarthritis, and he has authored more than 200 publications in refereed journals - his publication of the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in systemic lupus erythematosus is considered a landmark paper that has altered the treatment of this disease for many patients.

In addition to receiving The Distinguished Investigator Award at the 2005 Canadian Rheumatology Association meetings in Quebec, Dr. Esdaile's achievements also include being named a Kirkland Scholar by the Kirkland Foundation in New York in 2006 and elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences in 2007. Dr. Esdaile is also recognized as a Master of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), one of the highest honours the College grants. 

In 2013 he received the Jonas Salk Award, presented annually to a Canadian scientist who has made a new and outstanding contribution in science or medicine to prevent, alleviate or eliminate a physical disability.

Not one to look far into the future, Dr. Esdaile plans to continue his focus on results that will impact people with arthritis today.

"We're committed to finding timely, cost-effective solutions that will make a difference in the lives of those struggling with arthritis right now," says Dr. Esdaile." However, with talented researchers and scientists, a strong Board of Directors, a dedicated support staff and an active patient advisory group, ARC is well-positioned to flourish as a key arthritis research centre, both now and in the future."

"Simply put," he says, "I hope to help realize a future where research-based services, tools and knowledge empower people living with arthritis to triumph over pain and disability.”

“With further research into this complex illness, we can work to prevent arthritis, as well reduce work disability, improve pain management, and address the special needs of arthritis patients across Canada,”