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Doctors still over-prescribe antibiotics despite resistance risk, patient expense

Despite evidence that prolific use of antibiotics could actually be making us get sicker, hospitals are still prescribing them at high rates.

A new study shows that prescription rates did not decrease between 2006 and 2012, despite growing evidence that many drugs given to patients were not actually necessary. It found that the length of time patients took the drugs didn’t change, but that use of particular drugs did go up.

“Use of some antibiotics, especially broad spectrum agents, however, has increased significantly,” the study said. “This trend is worrisome in light of the rising challenge of antibiotic resistance.”

Researchers have found that as people are given antibiotics at higher rates, bacteria can become more resistant to the drugs. Strains can evolve in ways that make drug therapy less effective, increasing the chances an infection isn’t treatable and can spread more widely.

Over 2 million Americans are infected each year with bacteria that doesn’t respond to existing antibiotics. An estimated 23,000 cases are fatal.

“This is the first time we have national estimates for what is going on in hospitals,” study co-author Dr. Arjun Srinivasan told Time of his work tracking antibiotic use in more than 300 facilities across the country.

Srinivasan, who is associate director of health care associated infection prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that it is possible that doctors are prescribing more antibiotics in attempt to treat more difficult infections that aren’t eliminated by older medications.

But he said there isn’t yet any data to explain why.

“How much of the increase in use is because doctors are treating harder-to-treat infections? How much is fear of a hard-to-treat infection that isn’t actually there?” Srinivasan said. “How much is even misunderstanding that they’ve heard of resistant infections, and think they need to use a stronger drug, but don’t actually need to?”

Along with evidence showing antibiotic drugs are having an adverse impact on health, the Food and Drug Administration recently announced that consumers can stop using antibacterial soap in their homes. The agency found that such soaps aren’t any better at stopping the spread of illness or killing bacteria than regular soap and water. Antibactieral soaps could also be contributing to the increase in resistance of bacteria, and “may have a significant impact on the effectiveness of medical treatments.”

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