Prime Minister David Cameron has asked GPs to ‘halve’ inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics within four years.
Mr Cameron announced the targets as world leaders gathered to discuss how to tackle the global problem of antimicrobial resistance at the G7 summit in Japan.
The Department of Health told Pulse it was not possible to put a definite figure on how many prescriptions are inappropriate and how many fewer prescriptions GPs would therefore need to prescribe to hit the new target.
But several national media reports said that around 10% of prescriptions – around 3.4m a year – are thought to be prescribed unnecessarily, for complaints like coughs and colds.
This would mean GPs would need to be prescribing 1.7m fewer antibiotics each year by 2020.
It comes as GPs have been praised for cutting down total antibiotic use by 7% – or 2.6m fewer prescriptions – over the past year.
NHS chiefs hailed this as a successful outcome of the quality premium scheme, which includes rewards for CCGs to hit targets for reducing both overall and broad spectrum antibiotic use. But evidence from Public Health England has shown that GP prescribing of antibiotics was already falling prior to the introduction of the scheme.
Public health minister Jane Ellison said that the PM’s new target would ‘help maintain momentum’, and health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it would ‘further reinforce for the international community just how serious we are about tackling antimicrobial resistance’.
But RCGP chair Dr Maureen Baker warned against setting ‘arbitrary’ targets for GPs.
She said: ‘We would advise caution at introducing arbitrary targets that might not take into consideration the diverse and changing needs of our patients, and could simply be used as a stick to beat hard-working GPs with further down the line.’
Dr Baker added that general practice is ‘incredibly complex’ and that it ‘is important GPs do not find themselves in a situation where they feel pressured not to prescribe antibiotics, when it is absolutely the right thing to do for the patient in front of them’.
The new measures mark the Government’s initial response to Lord Jim O’Neill’s wide-ranging review of antimicrobial resistance, which concluded last week and warned that without concerted action the rise of superbugs could cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050.
The Government has also pledged to halve the number of bloodstream infections caused by resistant bacteria by 2020, cutting use of antibiotics in livestock and fish farming to recommended levels and offering rewards for industry to develop new drugs.