Doctors are Giving Out Antibiotics Like Candy

In the U.S., more than a quarter of antibiotics prescribed to patients each year are inappropriate. Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem in the U.S.—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance affects some 2 million people in the U.S., and kills 23,000 each year—and it's mostly due to unnecessary prescriptions.

According to a study published on Tuesday in JAMA, approximately 262 million patients who visited their physician received scripts for antibiotics on an outpatient basis from 2010 to 2011. The new report suggests approximately 30 percent of those scripts were inappropriate. The study authors say their findings indicate that the medical community needs clearer guidelines on how to assess the need to give these drugs to patients.

Resistance to antibiotics can have serious consequences. Bacterial infections that are otherwise easy to treat suddenly become life-threatening since first-line antibiotics are no longer effective. Overexposure to antibiotics can also cause a person to develop severe allergies which means the drugs then become no longer safe to use.

For the study, the researchers looked at data from the 2 010 to 2011 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Of the 184,032 patients involved, 12.6 percent received a script for antibiotics at a visit with their physician. Most often, antibiotics were prescribed to patients who were diagnosed with sinus infections, followed by ear infections and pharyngitis (inflammation of the throat). Physicians were most likely to inappropriately prescribe antibiotics to patients with acute respiratory conditions. Approximately 221 per 1,000 patients received a script for antibiotics meant to treat respiratory problems, but only an estimated 111 of these scripts were actually essential for treatment, according to the study. Overall, the researchers found that for every 1,000 patients, there were some 506 prescriptions written annually for antibiotics, but only 353 of them were actually useful.

Some experts say part of the problem is that patients are not educated on the use of these drugs, and see the drugs as a panacea for every illness. Results from a survey conducted by the World Health Organization last November involving about 10,000 people from 12 countries found nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said they knew antibiotic resistance is a problem but were uncertain what they could do to help prevent it. Nearly a third of survey participants believed they should stop taking antibiotics when they start to feel better instead of completing the entire course prescribed, which is always recommended by a doctor. Many also thought these drugs are effective for ailments that aren't bacterial: 64 percent said they believed antibiotics can be used to treat influenza and the common cold.

Federal health officials have developed the White House National Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which has a goal of reducing inappropriate antibiotic use by 50 percent overall by 2020. To reach that target, write the authors of the new study, a key step would be to reduce the number of outpatients who leave their doctor's office with script for one of these drugs by at least 15 percent.