28 June 2024

Physicians can significantly reduce antibiotic use – without compromising treatment


Some physicians prescribe far more antibiotics than others. But more frequent use of antibiotics doesn't benefit patients – and it can contribute to the antibiotic resistance that could soon kill millions of people annually. This is according to a new study from the Department of Economics.

Photo: Bermix Studio, Unsplash

Every year, more than 700,000 people worldwide die from antibiotic-resistant and antimicrobial infections. This figure surpasses the annual 627,000 deaths from malaria, 685,000 deaths from breast cancer and 500,000 deaths from drug abuse.

The continued spread of resistant bacteria makes even common infections and standard surgical procedures high-risk events.

"If we fail to contain resistance, 10 million people could die from antibiotic-resistant infections annually within the next three decades," says Hannes Ullrich, Associate Professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Copenhagen.

Change of physician provides crucial clues

Together with his research colleague Shan Huang, he has studied the varied use of antibiotics by medical doctors.

"Human antibiotic consumption is the most important factor in the fight against resistance. We also see major public health campaigns and costly policies aimed at targeting and restricting antibiotic use by healthcare professionals," explains Shan Huang.

However, while physicians have been extensively studied in terms of prescribing addictive medications, referrals to specialists and healthcare costs in general, remarkably little is known about the impact of physician practices on antibiotic prescribing.

To shed some light on this area, the two economists investigated what a change of general practitioner can mean for the amount of antibiotics prescribed to a patient – and how it affects treatment.

"When GPs move or retire, their patients have to change doctors and may be exposed to a different approach to antibiotics. Using large amounts of administrative data from Denmark, we can see what these practice differences imply for patients,” says Hannes Ullrich.

More prescriptions do not improve treatment

The study shows that, in particular, older doctors are more likely to prescribe antibiotics. On the other hand, doctors with more colleagues and better diagnostic capabilities pull in the other direction.

“This indicates that developments in professional education, diagnostic equipment and clinic organization are crucial for the appropriate use of antibiotics,” emphasizes Shan Huang.

At the same time, the economists see no evidence that greater antibiotic use ensures higher quality of care and better health outcomes for patients.

"Doctors who use antibiotics extensively require more follow-up treatments and do not send fewer patients to the hospital with preventable infections," says Shan Huang.

Given the severity of the antibiotic resistance crisis, the researchers call for much more political action in this area.

"Our study shows that antibiotic overuse is highly associated with diverse practices. Harmonising approaches to using antibiotics can reduce the overall consumption of antibiotics without compromising patient health. New diagnostic technologies, including data-driven solutions using artificial intelligence, can play an important role in promoting efficient use of antibiotics," concludes Hannes Ullrich.


Hannes Ullrich
Associate Professor, Department of Economics
Mail: hannes.ullrich@econ.ku.dk
Phone: +45 35 33 76 59

Simon Knokgaard Halskov
Press and communications advisor
Mail: sih@samf.ku.dk
Phone: +45 93 56 53 29


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