The study by Public Health England revealed how surgeries are inundated with requests for antibiotics. One in five patients with a respiratory illness visit their GP and more than half expect to obtain an antibiotic prescription.
The researchers acknowledged ‘frequent pressure’ on GPs to prescribe antibiotics, but said they must do more to discuss the ‘pros and cons’ with patients.
More appropriate prescribing ‘may help to prolong the useful life of the "staple" antibiotics used in everyday general practice’, they said.
In May, England’s CMO Professor Dame Sally Davies said the world faced a ‘catastrophic threat’ from antimicrobial resistance. In the summer, the UK will publish a cross-government strategy in a bid to address the problem.
NICE estimates that there are more than 6m GP consultations for respiratory tract infections in England each year. Antibiotic dispensing in primary care in England rose by 7% between 2007 and 2011.
In the study, researchers questioned 1,767 adults responding to an Ipsos MORI survey in 2011. They asked participants if they had experienced a recent respiratory infection, their expectations about antibiotics and what drugs they were prescribed by their GP.
Thirty-eight per cent of those questioned still believed antibiotics can kill viruses, despite information campaigns involving posters and leaflets in GP surgeries.
Researchers found that 20% of the 1,000 adults with recent respiratory symptoms visited their GP, while 60% took OTC medicines. Just 14 people contacted NHS Direct.
Only 3.5% of all patients who asked for antibiotics in the past year were refused them. Three-quarters (74%) were prescribed antibiotics after discussing their illness with the GP, but 23% received a prescription without discussion. A quarter of patients did not finish their antibiotic course.
Patients who expected their GP to prescribe antibiotics for a respiratory infection were twice as likely to visit their surgery.
Public Health England researchers said use of a delayed prescription, to allow an infection to clear up by itself first, may offer a compromise between patients’ request for antibiotics and a need to limit their use.