Researchers estimate that 20% of all antibiotic prescriptions written in primary care are inappropriate, findings published this week reveal. Based on data that show around 3m antibiotic prescriptions per month are issued in general practice, this suggests that antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily around 20,000 times every day by GPs.
The researchers found that 'the majority of practices in England prescribe considerably more antibiotics for several selected conditions than would be expected based on guidelines and expert opinion'. For acute cough, bronchitis, sore throat and other conditions antibiotics were prescribed in up to six times more consultations than necessary.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard called the research findings 'extremely disappointing', but warned that they 'must not be used as an excuse' to criticise GPs trying to reduce antibiotic use while facing chronic workload pressure and a workforce shortage.
GPs have already achieved significant reductions in antibiotic prescribing in recent years, with NHS Improvement hailing in May 2016 a 7.3% reduction in antibiotic items prescribed by GPs over a one-year period. GPs have also driven down their use of drugs that experts say should be used sparingly to prevent antibiotic resistance.
PHE officials said the research, published in a supplement to the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, highlighted the role GPs could play in reducing inappropriate antibiotic prescribing. Under a target set by former prime minister David Cameron in 2016, the NHS is aiming to halve inappropriate prescribing by 2020 - suggesting GPs need to cut out 10% of their antibiotic prescriptions over the next two years.
PHE medical director Professor Paul Cosford said: 'I urge all practices to look at ways they can reduce their inappropriate prescribing levels to help make sure the antibiotics that save lives today can save lives tomorrow.'
Dr Stokes-Lampard said: 'If GPs do prescribe antibiotics, it is because, in their expert opinion, they are the most appropriate treatment available, given the unique circumstances of the patients before us. However we are still coming under considerable pressure from some patients who need to understand that antibiotics are not a "catch all" for every illness.
'Antimicrobial resistance is now a major global health threat and responsibility for tackling this does not lie solely at the door of GPs - the whole of society must play its part.'
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt added: 'Drug-resistant infections are one of the biggest threats to modern medicine and inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics is only exacerbating this problem. Since 2012, antibiotics prescribing in England is down by 5%. But we need to go further and faster.'