30% Of Prescribed Antibiotics Aren’t Necessary, Study Finds

May 4, 2016
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

(Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A little more than a year ago, the White House set an ambitious new goal for the country: Cut the unnecessary use of antibiotics in outpatient settings in half by 2020.

There was one problem. Even though health officials have warned for decades about how the overuse of antibiotics is contributing to the rise of sometimes deadly drug-resistant bacteria, there’s been little research to fully quantify the extent of the problem.

On Tuesday, the most in-depth study of its kind provided the clearest picture yet of just how far there is to go.

The research found that nearly one-third of all antibiotics prescribed in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and hospital-based clinics in the United States are completely unnecessary.

The study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about 13 percent of all outpatient visits in the United States — about 154 million visits annually — result in an antibiotic prescription. About 30 percent of these, or roughly 47 million prescriptions, are not needed, according to the analysis.

Such overuse has exacerbated the so-called superbug threat, because as modern medicine uses more antibiotics, more germs have become resistant to them. This “hidden epidemic,” as it’s been called, results in at least 2 million illnesses in the U.S. every year and approximately 23,000 deaths. As FRONTLINE reported in the 2013 investigation Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, outbreaks have hit even the most prestigious hospitals in the country, including the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health.

The study analyzed two major CDC surveys of outpatient facilities from 2010 to 2011. Based on that analysis, researchers found that 44 percent of antibiotic prescriptions are written to treat patients with some sort of acute respiratory conditions — like a sinus infection, bronchitis, asthma, allergies or even the common cold. But half of these prescriptions are unnecessary, the study said, since many are for viral illnesses that don’t even respond to antibiotics.

An editorial published alongside the study in JAMA noted that the findings likely undercount the scope of overprescribing, since the underlying data does not factor for times when a patient might get a prescription over the phone, at an urgent care clinic, retail pharmacies or a dentist’s office.

“Patients and health care providers must work together to understand when antibiotics will help and when they won’t, and help preserve these lifesaving drugs for patients who really need them,” said Kathy Talkington, director of Pew’s antibiotic resistance project, in a statement.

As part of its 2020 action plan, the White House said it would push for the development of new tests designed to reduce the overuse use of antibiotics. Based on the CDC/Pew study, for the nation to hit the administration’s target of cutting the unnecessary use of antibiotics in half, outpatient prescriptions would need to come down 15 percent overall. That translates to roughly 23 million fewer antibiotics prescribed each year between now and 2020.

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