This site is intended for health professionals only

At the heart of general practice since 1960

Read the latest issue online

Gold, incentives and meh

NICE plays the tough guy on antibiotics

NICE chief recommends GMC action for ‘persistent’ prescribers of inappropriate antibiotics, finds Caroline Price


NICE appears to be playing hardball over GP antibiotic prescribing – but it is not clear why.

At a press conference to launch its new guideline, Professor Mark Baker, director of the centre for clinical practice at NICE, said ‘soft-touch’ GPs should face a GMC referral for ‘persistently’ prescribing the antibiotics inappropriately.

His comments were seized on by national media, with the front page of the Daily Mail declaring: ‘GPs face axe for handing out too many pills’.

Professor Baker’s comments went much further than the actual guideline the press conference was intended to promote. And Pulse has also learned the figures on ‘inappropriate’ prescribing used at the press conference were based on ‘expert opinion’ rather than on any concrete evidence.

This would seem to add up to a bizarre attack on the profession when official figures show GP antibiotic prescriptions are actually falling.

The situation provoked fury at the BMA, which demanded urgent talks with NICE. The regulator later released a clarification, saying it wanted to ‘support not admonish’ GPs, but did not take back Professor Baker’s comments. And GP leaders say the row over GMC referral has scuppered a key opportunity for NICE to work with the profession to tackle rising resistance rates.

‘Soft-touch GPs should face a GMC referral’

Professor Mark Baker, NICE

The new guideline itself simply reiterates established advice to withhold antibiotics in self-limiting illnesses and to consider delaying the drugs where it is clinically safe to do so. It also recommends that GPs be issued with individual reports on their antibiotic prescribing and says the NHS should ‘encourage a culture’ where colleagues question one another on their antibiotic prescribing if they are ‘not in line with… guidelines and no reason is documented’.

Professor Baker explains to Pulse: ‘If the measures we’re proposing are put in place, then the prescribing of antimicrobials practised by every practitioner will be available to form part of their annual appraisal documentation – and outliers can be identified and in some cases will be taken further at a local level.’

He adds: ‘For “persistent offenders” the ultimate sanction would be a referral to the GMC under its performance procedures. But it’s only very rarely that they ever get to a panel, as the vast majority of doctors are wise enough to change their practice before it gets that far.’

And although the GMC says that it should not be about ‘pursing individual doctors’, chief executive Niall Dickson adds that annual appraisals, as part of the revalidation cycle, offer a ‘valuable opportunity’ for GPs to reflect on all aspects of practice including their prescribing – adding that ‘we would expect doctors would undertake any further training that might be identified as part of that process’.

The guideline comes after a concerted effort to crack down on antibiotic prescribing, ever since the chief medical officer described the problem of resistance as a ‘catastrophic threat’ to health in 2013. That year, the Government released its Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy and Public Health England (PHE) followed up with its own plan last year.

GP prescribing is falling

PHE had planned to publish practice-level antibiotic prescribing data from April this year but this has yet to materialise. It promised that individual GP data would be published ‘in due course’.

But GP prescribing of antibiotics is actually on the way down. Data released last year showed that GP prescribing rates fell by 3.5% from 2012 to 2013, compared with a comparable rise in hospital prescribing.

And NICE bosses have no published data to support their claim that ten million ‘inappropriate’ prescriptions – which represents a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions in the NHS – could be cut if its guidance was followed. Pulse has learned from NICE that this was an estimate made by an expert adviser to the Department of Health and is ‘at the far end of plausibility’ (see box, page 20), although it has gained wide currency in the national press.

Nevertheless, the DH has set a target for primary care prescribing to return to 2009/10 rates by 2018/19 and there have been rumours of contractual incentives to achieve this. In this environment, the NICE guideline on antimicrobial stewardship should have marked a moment for GPs to benefit from evidence-based advice on how to reduce their prescribing.

Are GPs prescribing large amounts of antibiotics in appropriately?

There limited evidence to support the draconian stance that NICE is taking on antibiotics.

A study of NHS antibiotic prescribing between 1995 and 2011 by Public Health England (PHE) and University College London researchers found half of all patients with a cough or cold were prescribed an antibiotic.

Data from 2011 in the same study also found that among patients given an antibiotic for a sore throat, more than 30% received one not recommended in national guidance.

Another study from 2014 concluded: ‘Most UK general practices prescribe antibiotics to young and middle-aged adults with respiratory infections at rates considerably in excess of what is clinically justified. This will fuel resistance.’

But a later report from PHE, published last year, noted that GPs’ antibiotic prescribing declined in 2013, compared with significant increases in other prescribers, particularly dentists and walk-in centres.

And NICE has struggled to support its claim that its guidance could cut prescriptions by ten million – a quarter of those handed out in a year. A NICE spokesperson said: ‘That was an estimate based on expert opinion from advisors to the Department of Health.’

Sources: NICE, Eur J Gen Prac 2015:21;118-123, J Antimicrob Chemother 2014;69:3423-30, BMJ Open 2014;4:e006245

Lost opportunity

Instead, they have been completely overshadowed by injudicious words by one of NICE’s top officials.

Dr Andrew Green, the chair of the GPC’s clinical and prescribing subcommittee, says: ‘It was a great shame that the opportunity for a mature public debate was spoiled by one individual’s unguarded comments.

‘We could have seen NICE, the BMA, PHE and the RCGP standing together and saying: “Here’s a real problem, we all need to co-operate to reduce prescribing, let’s talk about how we can make this happen. If GPs take care with their decision-making and restrict their prescribing then we will all stand behind them”.

‘That one-off chance was lost.’

RCGP vice-chair Professor Tim Ballard says a ‘societal change’ is needed regarding the use of antibiotics. He adds that ‘any suggestion that hard-pressed GPs – who are already trying to do their jobs in increasingly difficult circumstances – will be reported to the GMC is counterproductive and unhelpful’.

Multifaceted feedback

Professor Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, and a GP in south London, agrees: ‘The [NICE] guidance is fairly clear, positive and sensible. It doesn’t actually make mention of any GMC sanctions but the press coverage has focused on that.

‘We know from previous research that multifaceted feedback is better rather than such an extreme response. I think most doctors would be supportive of the actual guidelines – they are aware of problems with resistance and try to limit their antibiotic use… the UK is below average for antibiotic use in Europe already.

‘The media seem to have picked up on GPs prescribing unfairly – drug resistance is higher in hospital settings rather than primary care.’

The BMA itself supports issuing GPs with individual prescribing reports. Dr Green says that this – combined with a national advertising campaign for patients – would make a positive difference.

He says: ‘I firmly believe that reflecting GPs’ prescribing back to them in a supportive manner, with adequate educational materials and with protected time to look at the data, will result in change.’

And NICE says it is working on advice for patients, which it expects to publish next year.

Despite these encouraging steps, GPs fear a real opportunity to engage the profession in the fight against antimicrobial resistance may have been squandered. NICE needs to ask itself some searching questions about its approach.

Additional reporting by Sara Naraghi

What the NICE guidance actually says

  • Commissioners should have an antimicrobial stewardship programme and consider including ‘regular feedback’ on individual prescribing and any patient safety incidents related to antimicrobial use or infections.
  • Antimicrobial stewardship teams ‘should work with prescribers to explore the reasons for very high, increasing or very low volumes of antimicrobial prescribing’.
  • They should also provide feedback and advice to those who prescribe antimicrobials ‘outside of local guidelines when this isn’t justified’.
  • When deciding whether or not to prescribe an antimicrobial, take into account the risk of antimicrobial resistance for individual patients and the population as a whole.
  • For patients in primary care who have recurrent or persistent infections, consider taking microbiological samples when prescribing an antimicrobial and review the prescription when the results are available.
  • For patients who have non-severe infections, consider taking microbiological samples before making a decision about prescribing an antimicrobial, providing it is safe to withhold treatment until the results are available.
  • Consider point-of-care testing in primary care for patients with suspected lower respiratory tract infections as described in the NICE guideline on pneumonia.
  • When prescribing is outside local (where available) or national guidelines, document in the patient’s records the reasons for the decision.

Source: NICE antimicrobial stewardship guideline, Aug 2015

Rate this article  (4.67 average user rating)

Click to rate

  • 1 star out of 5
  • 2 stars out of 5
  • 3 stars out of 5
  • 4 stars out of 5
  • 5 stars out of 5

0 out of 5 stars

Readers' comments (7)

  • Everyone knows that in, especially southern, European States antibiotics are more freely available and, consequently I imagine, more frequently consumed than in the UK. Additionally, I have heard nothing about the agricultural use of antibiotics by farmers. Antibiotic resistance is a world-wide problem, not a UK-only one and the DoH and NICE spokesman simply demean themselves by sounding off about some of the least profligate prescribing groups- namely GPs

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Dominique Dock

    Totally agree with Michael Elliott, and despite being a private GP, I seriously do my best to curb antibiotic "expectancy", by reducing my prescription of them and spending time with patients, explaining why they don't need them, even when they are from those European countries ( I come from France !) or the Gulf countries...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Azeem Majeed

    NICE shot itself in the foot by mentioning GMC referral and sanctions for GPs who 'over-prescribe' antibiotics. A more sophisticated multi-faceted approach is needed to improve antibiotic prescribing that includes interventions such as feedback of data on practice and individual level prescribing, development of new rapid near patient tests for bacterial infection, and a public education campaign. Most importantly, GPs need a contract that gives them adequate time and funding to deal with their workload. Trying to get through 50-60 patient consultations in a day and deal with all the associated administrative work is not a recipe for a high-quality primary care system.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Yet yet Another autocratic foolish comment from an ignorant academic who would not last 5 minutes doing real patient care rather than producing more recycled hot air about prescribing which GPs have been actioning for decades
    I await his apology

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Took Early Retirement

    This comment has been removed by the moderator

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • VERY interesting guidelines from NICE ! When I was a student nurse/midwife, it was GOOD MEDICINE to take a swab for 'culture & sensitivity' before prescribing the CORRECT antibiotic , if any ! Nowadays, it's just trial & error, if that one doesn't work, try another one, AND another one, by which time it is a chronic infection resilient against them ALL !!!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say