A recent study reported in yesterday's Guardian (19 August 2014) concludes that GPs are frequently prescribing unnecessary antibiotics that will not improve the patient’s health. 

In the survey of over 1,000 British GPs almost half admitted that they prescribed antibiotics several times a week even when they knew the treatment was not clinically indicated and would do nothing to improve the patient's health.  A further three out of ten GPs prescribe antibiotics where a patient's diagnosis is uncertain and antibiotics may or may not help.

Clinical assessment and judgment are clearly not the only factors at play.  Of the GPs surveyed, 90% said they feel pressured by patients to write prescriptions for antibiotics even when the patient's condition does not warrant using the drugs.  GPs also have to make these decisions at a consultation based on the patient's reported symptoms and often without any diagnostic test to enable the GP to assess the nature of their condition more definitively.  While it may sometimes be appropriate and cost-effective to prescribe antibiotics in cases where there is uncertainty, the overuse of antibiotics poses an increasing risk to wider public health in the longer term. 

Recent news reports have highlighted that the effectiveness of the antibiotics that have been at the core of infection control for years is being eroded by overuse and there are increasing problems with bacterial resistance.  There is significant concern that these drugs will stop working.  In July, 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.

This study is a precursor to the Longitude Prize, a £10 million prize fund that opens later this year.  Its objective is to find and develop cheap and easy diagnostic tests that would enable GPs to assess whether antibiotics are needed in a particular patient.