Up to 10 million prescriptions for antibiotics are being dished out unnecessarily in Britain each year with patients seeking out doctors who are a “soft touch”, officials warn.
Public health expert Professor Mark Baker says the growing “crisis” of antimicrobial resistance could mean the whole basis of medicine will have to be rethought, with infections having to be treated surgically if drugs no longer work.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has published guidance for doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help tackle the problem, while it plans on issuing advice for patients next year.
Prof Baker, who is director of the Nice Centre for Clinical Practice, said on Monday more than 40 million prescriptions are written out for antibiotics every year but a quarter are likely to be inappropriate or unnecessary.
Research has found nine out of 10 GPs say they feel pressured to prescribe antibiotics and nearly all (97 per cent) who ask get them.
“It’s entrenched in our society,” Prof Baker said.
“There are people addicted to the idea of having antibiotics.
“If they know there’s a soft-touch doctor then they go to them. Often they’ll go to their GP and then try another one (if they do not prescribe them).”
He added that people will even buy antibiotics over the internet if they cannot get them through a doctor.
Prof Baker said previous guidance from Nice, on antibiotic prescribing for respiratory tract infections, was expected to reduce the amount of prescriptions by about 22 per cent but although they dipped slightly afterwards they then rose again.
He said it is down to other bodies such as Public Health England and NHS England to now translate the latest Nice guidance into “tools that will result in real action and a change in the level of antibiotic prescribing”.
“If we don’t do it now then we’ll have to rethink the whole basis of medicine because we’ve spent 60 years assuming that most infections will be cured by antibiotic drugs,” he told a briefing in central London.
“If they no longer work then we’ll have to rediscover and relearn how to treat infections surgically and I don’t think anyone wants to be in that position.
Prof Baker said many patients expect antibiotics for common conditions such as colds, coughs, sore throats and even hay fever.