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Harvard Report: Too Many Antibiotics Prescribed for Sore Throats and Bronchitis

Update Date: Oct 04, 2013 12:14 PM EDT
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Due to the increase in antibiotic prescriptions over the years, many bacteria strains have become resistant to current day antibiotic treatments. Since antibiotic-resistant bacteria make treatment more difficult, many health experts and researchers have encouraged doctors to avoid prescribing antibiotics when they might not be necessary. However, despite these efforts, a new report conducted by researchers from Harvard University discovered that doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics for conditions, particularly sore throats and bronchitis when these illnesses generally do not respond to antibiotic treatments.

"For sore throat, antibiotics should be prescribed about 10 percent of the time," the study author, Dr. Jeffrey Linder said according to WebMD. Linder is a research in the division of general medicine and primary care at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA. "The story for bronchitis is even more bleak."

For this study, the researchers calculated the frequency of prescribing antibiotics for sore throats and bronchitis. They used data on 39 million adults who had bronchitis and 92 million adults with sore throats. The patients were seen by primary care physicians or in emergency rooms between 1996 and 2010. The team found that primary care visits for sore throats declined from 7.5 percent in 1997 to 4.2 percent in 2010. For bronchitis, the team found that emergency department visits increased from 1.1 million in 1996 to 3.4 million in 2010.  

They discovered that for sore throats, doctors prescribed antibiotics 60 percent of the time. According to the researchers, from 1990 to now, the use of antibiotics for sore throats only fell by 10 percent. For bronchitis, doctors prescribed antibiotic treatment 73 percent of the time. The team stated that the antibiotics should not be used for treating bronchitis because it is ineffective. However, over the past three decades, the prescription rate has not dwindled.

The researchers reasoned that the prescription rates have not lowered significantly most likely due to the fact that patients tend to ask for antibiotics. Doctors comply because they do not want to risk missing out on other possible diagnoses, such as pneumonia or strep throat.

"There's plenty of blame to go around. It's a lot easier to write a prescription than to have a five-minute conversation about why antibiotics aren't necessary," Linder said. "We need to have more faith in our bodies to get better from what are self-limiting conditions. The vast majority of sore throats, and virtually all of bronchitis [cases], get better on its own."

The report was published in JAMA Internal Medicine

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