Antibiotics are drugs used to treat infections, and work by killing bacteria. According to a research charity by the name of Nesta GPs reportedly prescribe about 90% of all antibiotics used in the UK. A recent study has shown that 76% of GPs prescribe antibiotics without being completely sure if a patient needs them and 44% of GPs admitted to prescribing antibiotics to patients despite knowing for certain that the drug would have no effect.
Why would a GP prescribe antibiotics if a patient doesn’t need them?
It may sound mad that a doctor would knowingly give a patient treatment that won’t benefit them. If a doctor was unsure as to whether antibiotic treatment is appropriate, tests should be performed. It’s often common however that a GP will prescribe antibiotics just-in-case an infection is bacterial, as test results take time to come back. To patients with clear viral infections like the flu, a doctor will ideally explain why antibiotics aren’t necessary in their case, and the patient will accept this information and move on.
Unfortunately, some patients will argue with their doctor until they get antibiotics. In fact, 55% of 1000 GPs asked claimed they have felt pressurised by patients to prescribe antibiotics. Some patients feel like their appointment was a waste of time if they leave without treatment, hence can put pressure on their doctor to give them a prescription. Others have different beliefs about what’s causing their symptoms or just can’t comprehend that antibiotics won’t make them feel better.
What can a GP do if a patient pressures them to prescribe antibiotics? They can outright refuse to prescribe them, but this will no doubt anger patients who are for-whatever-reason desperate for antibiotics, possibly putting them off visiting the doctor in the future. They can try and educate the patient further on why they don’t need antibiotics, but with ten minutes scheduled per consultation there is only so much explaining that can be done. So occasionally GPs give in and prescribe antibiotics despite knowing they won’t work.
Trust your GP.
So how does this lead to resistance?
Every time you give someone antibiotics you are giving bacteria in their body a chance to work out how the drug works. Over-prescribing antibiotics (to people who don’t need it or who could get better without them) increases this risk. Like humans, bacteria have different genetic mutations to each other and some bacteria have genes that allows them to survive when facing certain antibiotics. When exposed to the antibiotic, the bacteria will survive, reproduce and pass on their survival or ‘resistant’ gene to other bacteria. Soon enough you’ll have a huge population of bacteria that aren’t affected by the antibiotic that was once commonly prescribed to destroy it and make a patient better.
What does resistance mean for society?
Antibiotic resistance is really, really scary. Think about how far medicine has come in the past hundreds of years – we can now perform organ transplants, joint replacements and cure some people of cancer. Antibiotic resistance can threaten all of the wonderful, life-improving procedures that scientists worked so hard to develop. Is there any point in giving someone a heart transplant if they’re probably going to die from an infection whilst recovering? People will and are dying unnecessarily from infections that were once easily curable.
We have a finite number of antibiotics around that we can use, and as resistance grows we are running out treatment options. If you’re unlucky enough to be infected with MRSA, there’s currently only one antibiotic that could treat you, and there are already reporting’s that some bacteria are developing resistance to that.
What can we do to prevent antibiotic resistance?
We need to stop over-prescribing antibiotics to patients who don’t need them. Perhaps some of our GPs need to be a bit tougher with antibiotic-demanding patients. Developing new antibiotics would also help– having new drugs that bacteria aren’t resistant to would save lives whilst scientists could think of a longer-term solution to resistance.
What can YOU do?
Trust your GP! Don’t pressure them into giving you antibiotics, they’d suggest them if they thought they were needed. If you do require antibiotics follow your prescription carefully – take the right dose for as long as you are meant to.
For more articles like this read this piece where we discuss drug resistance to TB!