Healthcare professionals across the country are being called upon to take a proactive role in a new push by the government and the NHS to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance head on.
The issues of antimicrobial resistance, superbugs and the need for responsible antibiotic use have been high on the international health agenda for some time, but in the last month the UK has stepped up its efforts to address these challenges before they become overwhelming.
Though solving the problem will require extensive investment and programmes of action across various sectors of government and industry, it is doctors and nurses who can make the biggest impact in terms of changing attitudes and behaviours on the front line, thus helping to nip tomorrow's health crises in the bud.
A global problem
The issue of antimicrobial resistance boils down to the growing prevalence of highly resistant strains of bacteria that are immune to today's most commonly-used antibiotic therapies. Superbugs such as MRSA and C. difficile proliferate in healthcare settings, putting patients' lives at risk and rendering even common treatments and surgeries a serious risk.
Around 25,000 people already die each year from infections resistant to antibiotic drugs in Europe alone, and the problem is growing due to the continued overuse of antibiotics in medical practice, which causes resistance to develop faster. Compounding the problem is the fact that no new classes of antibiotics have come on the market for more than 25 years, suggesting a chronic lack of investment in this key field of research.
Prime minister David Cameron called for global action to solve the problem earlier this month, laying out a broad-ranging plan that will encourage spending on new antibiotic research, lead to new efforts to conserve existing antimicrobial drugs and establish a framework for international cooperation.
What can doctors do?
Days later, a joint statement was issued by various organisations representing NHS workers, setting out a new strategy to help health professionals make essential changes to the way they operate in order to minimise the impact of this problem.
Published by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Royal College of Nursing and the UK Faculty of Public Health, the report called on doctors and nurses to challenge the attitude that antibiotics can be treated as a cure-all, as this encourages their overuse and has dangerous consequences.
As such, health practitioners have been urged to reserve the use of antimicrobials for serious illnesses and diseases only, to resist pressure from patients for unnecessary prescriptions and explore alternatives with them, and to help educate the public on why such action is necessary.
Further recommendations include improving the monitoring of prescriptions for antibiotics and revising the guidance on dosages, while mandating the labelling of foods that use antibiotics as growth promoters.
The statement also recommended introducing incentives to reduce international use of antibiotics in animal slaughtering and crop production, with greater efforts made to develop new antibiotics and alternatives.
This represents the first time that healthcare and public health bodies have joined forces as part of a global crackdown on antibiotic misuse and overuse, and comes ahead of a planned national summit on November 6th 2014 that will see pharmacists, doctors, nurses and public health workers come together to discuss the matter collaboratively.
RCGP chair Dr Maureen Baker said: "We need to do everything we can to prevent bacteria building up a resistance to antibiotics, so patients can use them in the future when they might really need them."
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