Exclusive: GPs drove down antibiotic use despite severe flu season

GPs defied extreme pressure during the severe flu season this winter to maintain reductions in antibiotic prescribing - in an achievement BMA leaders called a 'tribute' to the profession.

Antibiotics (Photo: iStock/catenarymedia)
Antibiotics (Photo: iStock/catenarymedia)

The total number of prescriptions for antibacterial drugs handed out by GPs across England in the first three months of 2018 fell by around 1% to 9.1m, analysis of official data by GPonline reveals. The total cost of prescriptions for these drugs fell far more sharply - down 13% to £37.1m compared with the same period in 2017.

Reductions in antibiotic prescribing and overall costs came despite the most severe flu season since the start of the decade, with the weekly GP consultation rate for influenza-like illness peaking in the third week of 2018 at 54.1 per 100,000 - nearly triple the highest rate in the 2016/17 winter.

GP leaders said the severe flu season would have increased pressure on GPs to prescribe antibiotics, because numbers of respiratory complications requiring treatment were likely to have gone up.

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GPC prescribing subcommittee lead Dr Andrew Green told GPonline: 'It's a tribute to GPs that even when faced with the demands of a severe flu season that seriously disrupted secondary care, they managed to continue to exert downward pressure on antibiotic prescribing.'

Analysis of prescribing data published by NHS Digital also reveals that significant variation remains in antibiotic prescribing per weighted patient between CCGs.

Redditch and Bromsgrove CCG, near Birmingham, had the highest costs - spending 82p on average per weighted patient in the three-month period. The CCG was also among a small group that prescribed the most antibiotic items per weighted patient - around 0.2 items per weighted patient on average.

Antibiotic prescribing

At the other end of the scale, in Camden CCG in London fewer than 0.09 antibiotic items per weighted patient were prescribed between January and March. Three further London CCGs - Lambeth, West London and Southwark - recorded the lowest costs, spending just 39p per weighted patient.

Dr Green said the fact that overall costs had gone down 'may indicate a better prescribing pattern' among GPs. 'We try to prescribe the most traditional antibiotics that we can and avoid using the quinolones and cephalosporins, because of concern about antibiotic resistance.'

Last year, GPonline revealed that GPs had reduced prescribing of most antibacterial drugs that experts say should be used sparingly to limit antibiotic resistance.

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