Hospital Patients Unaware of Overprescribed Antibiotic Risk

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Many patients do not fully understand the risks of unnecessary antibiotic prescribing.

Many patients do not fully understand the risks of unnecessary antibiotic prescribing, according to research published in Medical Decision Making.

Researchers from George Washington, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins Universities surveyed 113 urban hospital patients to evaluate their understanding of antibiotics. The authors planned to investigate patients’ expectations for receiving antibiotics, as well as determine whether they are encouraged to take risks with their prescribed medications.

About half (48%) of patients agreed with the idea that “germs are germs,” while 76% indicated agreement with the “why not take a risk?” hypothesis. Of those who rejected the former assessment, 75% agreed with the latter one.

The researchers believed that patients’ lack of knowledge regarding unnecessary antibiotic prescribing contributed to their high rate of agreement with both hypotheses.

“Patients figure that taking antibiotics can't hurt, and just might make them improve,” said David Broniatowski, PhD, in a press release. “When they come in for treatment, they are usually feeling pretty bad and looking for anything that will make them feel better. These patients might know that there is, in theory, a risk of side effects when taking antibiotics, but they interpret that risk as essentially nil.”

The researchers examined other misconceptions, such as patients wanting antibiotics despite the fact that they have a viral infection that they know antibiotics will not cure.

“More than half of the patients we surveyed already knew that antibiotics don’t work against viruses, but they still agreed with taking antibiotics just in case,” Dr. Broniatowski continued. “We need to fight fire with fire. If patients think that antibiotics can’t hurt, we can't just focus on telling them that they probably have a virus. We need to let them know that antibiotics can have some pretty bad side effects, and that they will definitely not help cure a viral infection.”

While the researchers acknowledged that they enrolled a small number of participants in their study, they believe that their findings indicate a more widespread problem in how health officials communicate with patients and their caretakers. The study authors urged public health leaders to adjust educational materials in order to address patients’ concerns and beliefs regarding antibiotics and their purpose.

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