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Survey: Physicians continue to prescribe antibiotics they know won't work

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 5:33 p.m.

CHICAGO — Repeated warnings that antibiotics don't work for most sore throats and bronchitis have failed to stop overuse: Doctors prescribed these drugs for most adults seeking treatment at a rate that remained high over more than a decade, researchers found.

The results are in two analyses of national health surveys from the late 1990s to 2010, representing more than 2 million annual visits to doctors' offices or emergency rooms.

Antibiotics can have bad side effects, including stomach pain and severe diarrhea, and inappropriate prescriptions put patients at needless risk. The practice can cause drug-resistant germs.

The findings show reducing inappropriate prescribing “is frustratingly, disappointingly slow,” said Dr. Jeffrey Linder, a physician-researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. He did the research with Brigham colleague Dr. Michael Barnett.

Dr. Reid Blackwelder, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said part of the problem is prescribing habits that didn't change when evidence emerged showing most sore throats and bronchitis are caused by viruses; antibiotics only treat infections caused by bacteria, not colds, flu and other illness from viruses. Illnesses antibiotics can treat include bacterial pneumonia, most urinary infections, some types of eye and ear infections, and some types of food poisoning.

Patients' demands and doctors' time pressures play a role: It's often easier to prescribe an antibiotic than to take time to explain why they don't work for some illnesses, Blackwelder said.

“We've all done it,” he said.

Dr. Ed Septimus, a professor at Texas A&M Health Science Center in Houston, said development of more rapid testing to identify germs that cause sore throats or bronchitis could help curb the practice.

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