Although various recent studies have highlighted that prescriptions for antibiotics are given too often and the overuse of antibiotics poses an increasing threat to modern medicine, the problem persists. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) estimates that around 10 million prescriptions for antibiotics are handed out by GPs inappropriately.
NICE has now issued new guidelines on prescribing antibiotics and also calls for the prescribing habits of individual GPs to be monitored. It wants GPs who prescribe antibiotics excessively or inappropriately to face professional sanctions.
Other studies, however, have highlighted that GPs face huge pressure from patients to prescribe antibiotics, even when their symptoms and diagnosis are uncertain or do not require antibiotics. With limited time for each patient appointment and reports that many patients simply refuse to accept GPs' advice not to take antibiotics there must be a degree of patient responsibility for the current situation.
There is clear evidence that over-using antibiotics is enabling bacteria to build up resistance to treatment. Antibiotics have been at the core of infection control for years but their effectiveness is being eroded by over-use and there is great concern that these drugs will eventually stop working.
In 2014 the Prime Minister warned of the potentially devastating effect of not having antibiotics to treat infections, describing the risk of sending healthcare "back to the dark ages". Diseases that have been well managed for decades may increase with potentially disastrous consequences.
Commenting on the report, Andrew Clayton of Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team explained: "Patients need to understand that antibiotics are not a panacea for every ailment and that it is not in their interests to take antibiotics when there is no bacterial infection to treat. Over-prescribing antibiotics is potentially harmful both to individual patients and wider public health.
“Although the General Medical Council (GMC) can step in if there are concerns about any GP's prescribing practice, any investigation usually depends on patients, relatives or other practitioners voicing concerns. While the threat of professional sanctions may force GPs to take a tougher line with patients, the doctor-patient relationship is likely to be better served by improving patient education.
“A proper understanding of what antibiotics can – and cannot – treat and when it is appropriate to use them is imperative. GPs must explain to patients when and why antibiotics are inappropriate and patients must be prepared to heed their advice. Wider public campaigns need to reinforce that message to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences for public health."