Too many doctors still prescribing antibiotics for viral infections

Feb 28, 2011

A new study says overuse of antibiotics is still a big problem, fifteen years after the Centers for Disease Control began a campaign to stop the practice.  

Marianne Udow-Phillips is head of the University of Michigan’s Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.  She says antibiotics do not work for viral infections.  And the more physicians over-prescribe antibiotics, the more pathogens will develop resistance to the drugs.  But she says patients and doctors alike haven’t gotten the message. Udow-Phillips says:

"We’re just sick for a long time and we just want that magic pill to fix us... But if we have a virus, an antibiotic is not gonna help.  And sometimes physicians cave in to the pressure from families who say, 'just do something'."

Udow-Phillips says drug-resistant staph has become a huge problem.  In fact, more Americans die every year from antibiotic-resistant staph infections than AIDS. 

The practice of overprescribing the drugs is a bigger problem in some parts of Michigan than others, the study found.  In Holland, only about 10% of children who saw a doctor for an upper respiratory viral infection were given a prescription for antibiotics.

But in West Branch, nearly 68% of children with upper respiratory infections were given a prescription for an antibiotic.

Udow-Phillips thinks the differences in prescription rates is most likely because the CDC campaign focused on pediatricians rather than family physicians or internal medicine specialists.  She says more children may be seeing family physicians in areas like West Branch.

Udow-Phillips says the worst part of it is, physicians are often over-prescribing so-called "broad spectrum" antibiotics, when "narrow spectrum" antibiotics would, at least, do less harm.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics include drugs like zythromax, cipro, augmentin, and levaquin.  These antibiotics are intended for serious, potentially fatal, bacterial infections.  Udow-Phillips says misusing the drugs for viral infections can mean they won't work the next time - when, for example, a person contracts something dangerous like staph. 

Udow-Phillips says physicians should order tests to make sure their patients have bacterial infections before prescribing antibiotics.