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GPs’ antibiotic prescribing hits five-year low

The number of GP prescriptions for antibiotics has continued to fall for the fourth year running in England, a new report has shown.

The data – compiled by the charity Antibiotic Research UK – show that prescriptions fell 5.6% to 3.2 million, from a peak of 3.8 million seen in 2012, figures that have been welcomed by the RCGP, who said GPs are more willing to turn down patient requests. 

Per head of the population, the number of antibiotics prescribed fell from nearly 0.68 to just below 0.64.

However, the report showed there is still wide variation in prescribing rates across the country, with London practices prescribing 20% fewer antibiotics than those in the north.

It also suggested the gap in prescribing between the least and most deprived areas is widening, with a 20% difference between the top and bottom 1% of areas by deprivation.

And there was a big spike in prescribing around December, when prescriptions were 59% higher than in August.

Professor Colin Garner, from Antibiotic Research UK, said this was too big a gap to be explained by any seasonal increase in bacterial infections.

Professor Garner said: ‘It is true that colds and flu sometimes lead to bacterial infections due to suppressed immune systems, and so we would expect a minor increase in antibiotic prescription in the winter months, however the data show us a 59% jump in four months and this is far too high.

‘One explanation is that patients are requesting antibiotics from their GPs for simple coughs and colds and GPs are acceding to these requests despite the advice they have been given not to prescribe antibiotics for viral conditions such as these.’

However, Dr Maureen Baker, RCGP chair, said: ‘GPs often face pressure from patients to prescribe antibiotics, particularly during winter months when more people are feeling ill, so the national significant drop in prescribing is positive and shows that the work the college and others are doing to support appropriate prescribing and urge healthcare professionals to say “no” is taking effect.’

Dr Baker added that the link with deprivation was ‘concerning’, but that this could be legitimate variation related to higher rates of conditions like COPD, and differing health expectations across the country.

She said doctors ‘need to work together to make the public realise that prescribing antibiotics is not always the answer to treating minor, self-limiting illness’.