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Think about medical negligence and surgical mistakes spring to mind – the wrong limbs amputated, implements left inside patients and today a surgeon who rendered a man infertile by giving him a vasectomy by mistake. Or maybe the phrase recalls the horrific neglect seen at Mid Staffs, where patients died due to a culture apparently devoid of care and basic decency.

But there’s another way in which your doctor might kill you – and it’s potentially much further reaching than one operation or even one uncaring NHS Trust.

This is the report from today’s Times:

‘[A] survey of more than 1,000 GPs found that more than a quarter admitted that they provided antibiotics to patients unlikely to benefit from the drugs “several times a week” — equivalent to tens of thousands of courses of the drugs across the country. Forty-four per cent said that they sometimes handed out the drugs simply to get patients to leave the consultation room. Ninety per cent said that they felt pressure from patients to hand out antibiotics…’

Antibiotics are one of the 20th century’s greatest boons to humanity – countless millions of lives have been saved by these drugs. Diseases which were once routinely fatal are now merely serious, and the whole science of surgery is based on the assumption that large wounds can be protected from infection.

Wrongful prescription puts all those wonders in jeopardy. Giving someone who has a virus, like a cold, antibiotics doesn’t affect their illness one bit – it does, however, contribute to the antibiotic resistance of bacteria they may be carrying. Along with excessive antibiotic use in farming, the practice is a major driver of superbugs – most famously, the first two letters of MRSA stand for “Multi-Resistant”. When the last antibiotic stops working, we will be in huge, huge trouble.

We all know people who on the first sign of a sniffle run to the doctor demanding antibiotics. They are ignorant, and wrong to do so. But the real fault lies with the GPs who give in to their demands.

The general public aren’t medical experts, and most people have never sat down and read up on the difference between bacteria and viruses. Instead, we have people who spend several years, at vast expense to the taxpayer, training to understand how diseases work and how to treat them. We call them doctors, and give them special prescription powers and good pay to put their expertise to use healing us and protecting us from illness.

For a sizeable proportion of GPs to be dishing out such a valuable, finite resource in a way that not only costs money and doesn’t do any good but which actually puts others’ health at risk is obscene. They don’t have the excuse of ignorance – it seems instead they are doing it for a quiet life.

This is a profession which will happily tell us all about the importance of vaccinating your children in order not only to protect them but to protect others through herd immunity. And yet when it comes to wrongly prescribing antibiotics, plenty of them are apparently happy to risk our herd’s greatest defences against infection just to stop people nagging them.

We hear endless pronouncements about public health – be it on alcohol taxes, or nannying warning labels – but apparently this kind of public health protection can be flushed down the pan in return for a bit of peace and quiet in the surgery.

Isn’t the hassle of treating patients properly exactly what we pay doctors for? Refusing hypochondriacs inappropriate treatment, using valuable resources responsibly and addressing the correct disease with an effective cure is the very essence of their job.

The defence provided is unacceptable: “If you don’t give the anti-biotics, they’ll just come back the next day to see another doctor,” one GP told the Times. Frankly, I couldn’t care less – in a responsible profession, whichever doctor they come to see the next day would say “No”, too.

Apparently, 5,000 people die each year from antibiotic resistant infections in England alone. The grim fact is that a good deal of them are killed by the negligence of doctors they have never even met.

29 comments for: Your doctor may well be killing you

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