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Watchdog calls for clampdown on 'soft touch' GPs handing out unnecessary antibiotics

Video report by ITV News' Rebecca Barry

Action should be taken against "soft touch" doctors who hand out prescriptions for antibiotics to patients who don't need them, a health watchdog has said.

As many as 10 million prescriptions for antibiotics are being handed out needlessly every year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has said.

New guidance issued by the group warned that the overuse of antibiotics makes them less effective, increasing the chance of bacteria spreading.

Professor Mark Baker from the NICE warned that the growing "crisis" of antimicrobial resistance could mean the whole basis of medicine could have to be rethought, with infections having to be treated surgically if drugs no longer work.

Research has found that nine out of 10 GPs say they feel pressurised to prescribe antibiotics and nearly all (97%) patients who ask for them get them.

The Royal College of GPs said it was "dangerous" to prescribe unneeded antibiotics but warned reporting doctors to the regulator was "counter-productive and unhelpful".

Prof Baker, who is director of the Nice Centre for Clinical Practice, said more than 40 million prescriptions are written out for antibiotics every year, but a quarter of them are likely to be inappropriate or unnecessary.

Hay fever sufferers are demanding antibiotics. Credit: PA

He said many patients expect antibiotics for common conditions such as colds, coughs, sore throats and even hay fever.

"Antibiotics are prescribed in circumstances when they are unlikely to do the patient much good," he said.

“The rise in inappropriate prescribing comes in the face of successive attempts by NICE and by government to reduce it that simply haven't worked.

"Some of it is about the pressure put on GPs. Despite that pressure, prescribing an antibiotic when you know it’s unlikely to do the patient much good is not good practice."

Prof Baker said the problem was also caused by patients seeking out doctors they think will give them the antibiotics.

He said: "It's entrenched in our society. There are people who are addicted to the idea of having antibiotics.

"If they know there's a soft-touch doctor then they go to them."

He added that patients would try another GP if theirs did not prescribe them or even buy antibiotics over the internet.

Prescribing an antibiotic when you know it’s unlikely to do the patient much good is not good practice

– Professor Mark Baker, NICE

Prof Baker said it is down to other bodies such as Public Health England and NHS England to now translate the latest NICE guidance into "tools that will result in real action and a change in the level of antibiotic prescribing".

"If we don't do it now then we'll have to rethink the whole basis of medicine because we've spent 60 years assuming that most infections will be cured by antibiotic drugs," he told a briefing in central London.

"The situation I think has reached a greater degree of crisis than previous initiatives. It's a more serious situation now we've gone another 15 years without any new classes of antibiotics being produced."

The Royal College of GPs warned reporting doctors to the regulator was Credit: PA

Dr Tim Ballard, Vice Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said doctors face "enormous pressure" to prescribe antibiotics.

“These can be very difficult and stressful conversations for GPs to have and we know that NICE acknowledges this," said Dr Ballard.

"We need a societal change in attitudes towards the use of antibiotics and any suggestion that hard pressed GPs - who are already trying to do their jobs in increasingly difficult circumstances - will be reported to the regulator is counter productive and unhelpful.

We need to work together to make the public realise that prescribing antibiotics is not always the answer to treating minor, self-limiting illness

– Dr Tim Ballard, Royal College of GPs

“If this were to happen, we would be looking to the General Medical Council to support any GP or other health professional who finds themselves on the receiving end of complaints or criticism about decisions made over the prescribing of antibiotics.

"We all have a responsibility to curb this trend, and we need to work together to make the public realise that prescribing antibiotics is not always the answer to treating minor, self-limiting illness."

Antibiotics have been the mainstay of treating infections for more than 60 years but although a new infectious disease has been discovered nearly every year over the past 30 years, very few new antibiotics have been developed. This means existing antibiotics are used to treat an ever greater variety of infections and infectious diseases.