Unnecessary Antibiotic Use Is Dropping

A new study that suggests public health campaigns to curb the overuse of antibiotics are taking hold.

Overuse of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria like carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. PHOTO CREDIT: CDC

People are getting the message: Antibiotics aren’t the answer to many illnesses. The number of prescriptions filled for antibiotics declined from 2010 to 2016 according to a new study that suggests public health campaigns to curb the overuse of antibiotics are taking hold.

The decline represents progress in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotics have been widely used for more than 50 years, but some infections are becoming harder to control because of the proliferation of bacteria that have adapted to withstand the drugs prescribed to kill them.

The study, “Antibiotic Prescription Fill Rates Declining in the U.S.,” looked at commercial health plan members who filled antibiotic prescriptions over a seven-year period.

The data show that members filled 9 percent fewer antibiotic prescriptions. They also filled 13 percent fewer prescriptions for broad spectrum antibiotics, which combat a wide range of bacteria and are most likely to trigger the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The drop was even greater for prescriptions filled for children, a 16 percent decline, while prescriptions filled for infants fell 22 percent. Many initiatives to raise awareness about the overuse of antibiotics are aimed at parents.

“Public health efforts to increase the awareness of excessive antibiotic use and the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria appear to be achieving measurable results,” says Dr. Trent Haywood, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BCBSA. Unfortunately, the data also show continued high use of broad-spectrum antibiotics for health problems where they have limited effectiveness, indicating a need for continued improvement.

Other study findings

Antibiotic use varies widely by region. Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas show the highest rates of antibiotic prescriptions filled. People there filled nearly three times as many prescriptions than people in the states with the lowest rates, Hawaii, Oregon and Montana. People living in rural areas filled prescriptions at a rate 16 percent higher than those in urban areas.

In 21 percent of the cases, patients received antibiotics for health problems that often don’t respond to that treatment. Broad-spectrum antibiotics were prescribed in 75 percent of those questionable cases.

Prescriptions for the rarely used “reserved” antibiotics jumped 30 percent, the only frequency increase noted in the study. Reserved antibiotics are used as a treatment of last resort to fight bacteria that have developed resistance to other antibiotics.

Continued improvement

A study like this is a key component of efforts to improve antibiotic prescribing, according to Dr. Denise Cardo, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

“We are pleased to see improvements in prescribing (rates) for children, but we recognize that there are still opportunities to improve antibiotic use in all ages,” Cardo says.

The study from BCBSA, HealthCore Inc. and Blue Health Intelligence examined antibiotic prescriptions from outpatient doctor visits. The scope of the research included 173 million patient claims for antibiotics from more than 31 million commercially insured Blue Cross and Blue Shield members under age 65. It is part of an ongoing BCBSA research series, the Health of America Report.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association is made up of 36 Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies that collectively provide health care coverage for one-in-three Americans.

RELATED STORIES

The Persistent Threat of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Harnessing Telehealth to Prevent Diabetic Blindness

5 Things We’re Reading on Improving Health

Interested in ways we can make the
health care system work better?

Interested in ways we can make the health care system work better?