Skip to main content

Antibiotics (Primary Care)

Volume 602: debated on Monday 23 November 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Simon Kirby.)

First, I would like to declare an interest. Over 20 years ago, I was responsible for trying to launch a C-reactive protein point-of-care test, along with other point-of-care tests. The timing and circumstances were not right then, but things have moved on, and I believe the time is now right to get C-reactive protein point-of-care testing established in the primary care setting.

Last Monday was world antimicrobial day and that, along with the extensive media coverage over recent days about antimicrobial resistance and the vast difference between summer and winter antibiotic prescribing, makes this is a very timely debate. Antibiotics have been widely used to treat infections for more than 60 years, and without doubt the use of antibiotics has saved many millions of lives. I doubt if there is any right hon. or hon. Member who has never taken an antibiotic at some time in their life, but such extensive use of antibiotics has now become a real issue and a ticking timebomb.

Although new infectious diseases have been discovered nearly every year during the past 30 years, very few new antibiotics have been developed in that time, meaning that existing antibiotics are used to treat more and more infections. The consequence has been an increase in the prevalence of resistance to antibiotics, which in turn puts our ability to treat routine diseases in serious jeopardy. At present, treatment-resistant bacteria are responsible for approximately 25,000 deaths across Europe each year, which is a similar number to those dying in road accidents. The national risk register of civil emergencies has estimated that a widespread outbreak of a bacterial blood infection could affect 200,000 people in the UK. If it could not be treated effectively with our existing drugs, approximately 40% of those affected might die as a result, which is 80,000 people. There is an urgent need for action to slow the spread of antimicrobial resistance.

For a number of years, there has been a clear consensus among clinicians, academics and policy makers that antimicrobial resistance represents a major current and future danger to the foundations of modern medicine. In recognition of that danger, tackling the threat of antimicrobial resistance has been identified as a key priority by the Government, Public Health England and the chief medical officer. Just two years ago, the chief medical officer described the threat of antimicrobial resistance as

“just as important and deadly as climate change and international terrorism.”

I wish to focus on antibiotics in primary care and what measures can be taken to have a real impact on the way in which they are prescribed, which is currently almost like handing out a bag of sweets at the fair. In fact, 97% of patients who ask for antibiotics are prescribed them, whether or not they should have them. Owing to the popularity of primary care in the UK, that setting represents the part of the healthcare system where antibiotics are most likely to be prescribed, with 74% of them prescribed in that setting. International comparisons show that antibiotic resistance rates are strongly related to antibiotic use in primary care.

Despite guidance encouraging a reduction in antibiotic prescribing rates, nine out of 10 GPs say that they feel pressured into prescribing antibiotics. In the UK, we do like taking antibiotics. In 2013, data showed that 41% of residents had taken antibiotics in the previous 12 months, compared with a European average of 35%. Nationally, in 2013-14—the most recent year for which I have managed to get hold of the data—a staggering 41.6 million antibiotic prescriptions were issued, at a cost of £192 million to the NHS.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the Adjournment debate. She has outlined the issues and the epidemic potential among those who do not respond to antibiotics. Does she agree that we need something focused not just on England and Wales, but on the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland because this strategy has to help us all? In her submission to the House, will she say—perhaps the Minister could respond along the same lines—whether we should have a UK-wide strategy to address the issue for the constituents of all Members of the House and further afield?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is not just a UK-wide issue; it affects the whole world. That is one of my concerns. We need to play our part to set the trend for the whole world, because this is a global issue.

As I said, antibiotic prescriptions in 2013-14 cost the NHS £192 million. What is more worrying is that many of the 41.6 million prescriptions were unnecessary and will undoubtedly have contributed to the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance. More than half the antibiotics used in primary care are for respiratory tract infections, most of which are viral or self-limiting.

So what can be done to halt the ticking timebomb? Just last Wednesday, Public Health England called for NHS patients to become “antibiotic guardians” by thinking carefully before asking for drugs and taking more care to prevent the spread of infections by washing their hands and accepting the flu jab. I believe that we can go even further in reducing the use of antibiotics in ways that are better for the patient and that save the NHS money.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this issue before the House. Does she agree that the big problem, which she has touched on, is that a lot of people put pressure on their doctors to give them antibiotics, falsely thinking that they will cure a cold, which is a virus, when antibiotics are only useful against bacterial infections?

My hon. Friend is right. That is what we need to make clear. People often do not understand that the causes of those illnesses are quite different.

My local clinical commissioning group, Erewash CCG, is working hard to empower patients to take responsibility for their health, very much along the lines of the antibiotic guardians idea. As part of the initiative, it wants patients to learn to recognise when it is right to visit the GP and when it is right to seek alternative advice, such as that of a pharmacist.

I want to come back to where I began: the little device that performs the C-reactive protein point-of-care test. I can tell that hon. Members are wondering what C-reactive point-of-care testing is. A point-of-care test is a diagnostic test that is quick and easy to perform. It can be used during a patient consultation or completed while the patient waits. It allows for immediate diagnosis and treatment choice. Such point-of-care tests are designed to be used by people who are not laboratory scientists.

A C-reactive protein point-of-care test is a blood test that measures the amount of protein called C-reactive protein in a person’s blood, using just a drop of blood from the finger. Evidence shows that the test can deliver significant benefits when used in the primary care setting. It is used in the primary care setting in several European countries and has been shown to reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescribing by empowering GPs to make informed decisions.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for how innovation in the NHS can be the key to securing significant savings and a change in the culture of antibiotic use among the general public. Does she agree that it is about time NHS England moved quickly and decisively to empower people to change their behaviour in respect of managing their own health?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly why I secured this debate. We need to move quickly because this is a ticking timebomb that we must address sooner rather than later.

Point-of-care testing can reassure patients that they do not need antibiotics and will recover without them. There is evidence that C-reactive protein point-of-care testing could reduce the number of antibiotic prescriptions issued in primary care for acute respiratory tract infections by up to 42%. That represents millions of prescriptions every year. It has been calculated that using C-reactive protein point-of-care tests in primary care has the potential to save £56 million a year in prescription and dispensing costs. At the same time, C-reactive protein point-of-care testing could make a significant contribution to the UK’s antimicrobial resistance strategy.

I am sure that all hon. Members will have visited a GP with a cough and a cold and feeling pretty bad, and thinking that a short course of antibiotics is just what is needed to get rid of the bugs. They expect to leave the GP’s surgery with a prescription for antibiotics and already start to feel better. The problem with that scenario is that there is a high probability that those antibiotics will be useless, because the cold is not a bacterial infection, but a viral or self-limiting infection that antibiotics will not touch. The consequences are far reaching. First, the drugs will have been ingested unnecessarily, and it is likely that antibiotics will have increased antimicrobial resistance in the population. Secondly, a prescription will have been issued unnecessarily, which is a wasted cost to the NHS.

Let us consider an alternative. The hon. Member will still visit their GP with a cough and a cold and feeling pretty bad, but now by using just a drop of blood from their finger, a C-reactive protein point-of-care test can be carried out and will give an almost instant result. If the level of the protein is low to medium, no antibiotics are needed. The hon. Member will leave the GP’s surgery without a prescription, but knowing that they will start to feel better without one. If the level of the protein is high, a prescription for antibiotics can be issued. Such a simple measure is better for the patient, does not add to the ticking timebomb of antimicrobial resistance, saves the need for a prescription, and saves the NHS millions of pounds. I am sure hon. Members will be asking why it is not happening already.

Such a simple test can also be used for more complex cases than coughs and colds. With the life-limiting condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, GPs find it hard to differentiate between the ongoing condition and an underlying infection. An underlying infection, which could be tested by using the C-reactive protein point-of-care test, may require hospitalisation, but the ongoing condition would not. In such instances, it is not just about whether to prescribe antibiotics; it is about whether a hospital bed and all the resources alongside it are needed. Surely a low-cost, point-of-care test is worth its weight in gold given that scenario.

Despite recent reforms, the NHS still works in silos and is inflexible when it comes to funding a test that originally would be carried out in the hospital laboratory. The majority of testing required by primary care is done by block contract through the local hospital, and additional testing is seen as a cost burden on the GP—that was the barrier I hit more than 20 years ago.

Today, C-reactive protein is included as a recommended area of best practice within the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence clinical guidelines for pneumonia, which state that

“clinicians should consider a point-of-care C-reactive protein test for patients presenting with lower respiratory tract infection in primary care”.

That recommendation was made by the NICE guideline development group and based on antibiotic prescription rates, mortality, hospital admission rates, and quality-of-life outcomes. Antibiotic prescription rates were felt by the guideline development group to be the most relevant direct outcome influencing that recommendation.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, antimicrobial resistance is a particular problem in emerging economies—in India in 2014, 58,000 babies died because of AMR. Does she think that it would be wise to use international development budgets to tackle that severe and growing problem?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and I completely agree with him.

When one prominent GP wanted to introduce the point-of-care test, he was refused funding. He is now funding it through other sources as he feels that it provides better patient care than just issuing antibiotic prescription after prescription. Things must change for the sake of the patient, to reduce the number of prescriptions, to contribute to the battle against antimicrobial resistance, and ultimately to save the NHS millions of pounds.

The recently launched review of antimicrobial resistance, chaired by Jim O’Neill, is entitled “Rapid diagnostics: stopping unnecessary use of antibiotics” and states that

“rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests are a central part of the solution to this demand problem, which results currently in enormous unnecessary antibiotic use.”

That is why I am asking the Minister to do whatever she can to break down the silos, create the funding streams for C-reactive protein point-of-care tests in primary care, play her part in implementing our national antimicrobial strategy and save the NHS millions of pounds that could be redirected to disease areas that would really benefit from an injection of funds. This is a win-win-win situation and it must be addressed as quickly as possible.

Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) on securing this very well-attended debate on a very important issue. The hour is late, but there are a number of hon. Members in the Chamber, reflecting the importance of the debate, and they have made well-informed interventions. I will attempt to address all the issues raised, but if there is anything I do not get to I will look to write to hon. Members.

This debate is timely. Antimicrobial resistance awareness week, a news item in The Lancet and news from other countries, in particular China, have helped to underline the issue that, on occasion, can sound quite dry. If people wonder what the issue is, it has been aptly illustrated in recent weeks. The prescribing and use of antibiotics has a direct impact on antimicrobial resistance. As my hon. Friend made clear, it is one of the biggest global health challenges we face and I spend a lot of time talking about it to Health Ministers from other countries. The costs of antimicrobial resistance are very significant. The O’Neill review on antimicrobial resistance, commissioned by the Prime Minister, estimates that a continued rise in resistance by 2050 would lead to millions of additional deaths worldwide each year and an economic cost of up to $100 trillion worldwide. This is a really big issue.

My hon. Friend described exactly the problem we face in terms of the appearance and spread of bacteria that are resistant to treatment by current antibiotics, and the threat that poses to modern medicine. She provided some examples of that threat. Without effective antibiotics, medical advances such as organ transplants, and even minor surgery and routine operations, will become high-risk procedures. Procedures we assume can now be done as minor day surgery will suddenly become again a serious threat because of serious resistant infection. Antimicrobial resistance is a global problem that needs to be tackled at a national and global level to ensure antibiotics are used wisely.

As my hon. Friend and others will know, in 2013 we published the “UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy” to address this significant threat. It takes a “one health” approach, addressing human, animal, food and environmental aspects of antimicrobial resistance. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is, as ever, in his place. On many occasions I disappoint him by saying that matters are England-only, but I am delighted to be able to confirm that this is a UK-wide strategy. We are working on it in close collaboration with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. At the heart of our strategy is the need to use antibiotics more effectively. The key is how we change both public and health professional behaviour, and my hon. Friend described the challenge we face.

The English Surveillance Programme for Antimicrobial Utilisation and Resistance—just another one of those catchy little titles we come up with in the health world—is a very important programme. The 2015 surveillance report shows that general practice accounts for 74% of prescribed antibiotics. The number of antibiotic prescriptions in primary care has declined for the last two years and are now lower than in 2011. However, analysis of the data suggests that although there have been fewer prescriptions, higher doses or longer courses of antibiotics are being prescribed. Total use of antibiotics continues to increase in the NHS, albeit at a slower rate. We still have a significant challenge. It is a challenge for all of us and, as my hon. Friend said, behaviour change is right at the heart of how we tackle the problem, both for those who prescribe and for those who use antibiotics—both are crucial to our response.

In August, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence produced its stewardship guidelines for the health and social care system, which covered the effective use of antimicrobials, including antibiotics. We understand the pressures, as have been well described here, that primary care prescribers face every day. We know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) illustrated, that sometimes people expect to leave their doctor with a certain prescription, even if it is not the right thing. To support GPs, therefore, we have been working with the Royal College of General Practitioners to provide them with suitable tools to reduce levels of inappropriate prescribing.

Last week, research by Antibiotic Research UK found that doctors prescribed 59% more antibiotics in December than in August, despite many of the illnesses treated by antibiotics not being seasonal. That, too, touches on the challenges. One of the key resources doctors have at their disposal is TARGET—treat, antibiotics responsibly, guidance, education, tools—which is hosted on the RCGP website and aims to increase primary care clinicians’ awareness of the importance of antimicrobial resistance and responsible use. Health Education England continues to work with Public Health England to ensure that the competence and principles of prescribing antimicrobials are embedded throughout the professional curricula.

In a recent trial, the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, wrote to a sample of high-prescribing GPs in England, explaining that their prescribing rates were significantly higher than those of other similar GPs and asking them to reassess their prescribing protocols. This intervention resulted in a 4% reduction in levels of prescribing in those practices. That is encouraging and more trials are planned. I put on the record the gratitude of this Government and Governments around the world to Professor Dame Sally Davies for the work she has done in spearheading not just our national AMR campaign but the international campaign. I have watched her galvanise whole countries to action on this subject. We are extremely lucky that she is leading the charge.

NHS England’s introduction of a quality premium on antibiotic prescribing for 2015-16 is another significant step. The purpose is to act as an incentive to reduce levels of antibiotic prescribing in both primary and secondary care. We are encouraged by the early results and expect a reduction in levels of antibiotic prescribing in the next set of data covering 2015-16.

We are not overlooking the consumers of antibiotics: the public. We need to improve their understanding about their appropriate use and are active participants in European antibiotic awareness day, which has just passed and which looks to engage the wider public. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash highlighted the extremely important antibiotic guardian programme. We have set a target to reach 100,000 antibiotic guardians by next March. We also urge all colleagues—this is where MPs can be extremely helpful—to bring this up with their local NHS. If they ask about it, people will realise its importance, so I ask them to do so as part of their routine contact with local NHS institutions.

Public Health England, working in conjunction with the RCGP, has developed a range of patient information materials to help them think about how they care for themselves when they have a self-limiting infection, such as a cold, and when to consult a health professional. Critically, my hon. Friend referred to diagnostic testing, particularly the C-reactive protein test. I understand her frustration—sometimes it feels like things move rather slowly—but I hope that the attention the strategy has received illustrates our desire to move faster. In fact, the driving force behind the UK-wide strategy is about gearing up the whole health system to react more quickly.

Most antibiotic prescribing is done in the absence of a test to determine the nature of the illness and whether an antibiotic prescription is likely to help. Making better use of technology is a key part of our work. Greater access to and use of rapid diagnostic tests will help us to avoid unnecessary treatment and provide more targeted treatment where infections are diagnosed, which, of course, will mean better outcomes for patients.

My hon. Friend might note that, in the case of malaria, the introduction of rapid diagnostic tests has substantially reduced the inappropriate use of important antimalarials.

That is an excellent illustration of the potential of rapid diagnostic tests, and of course we had exciting news on malaria recently.

In December last year, NICE recommended that GPs should consider carrying out C-reactive protein testing for people presenting in primary care with symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection if, after clinical assessment, a diagnosis of pneumonia has not been made and it is not clear whether antibiotics should be prescribed. I understand that the test is increasingly being used in primary care, although the evidence for its use is mixed and the role of normal clinical diagnosis remains critical.

We want the right test available in the right place, from patients’ homes and the high street to primary and secondary care. That work is being undertaken as part of the implementation of the UK antimicrobial resistance strategy. To further develop the use of diagnostics in clinical practice, we are investing £1.3 million of research funding through the National Institute for Health Research. That research is being undertaken by Cardiff University, focusing on GPs’ use of the C-reactive protein test to help to target antibiotic prescribing to patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It will be interesting to see how that research goes, and I am sure we will return to it.

In addition to the important work to improve appropriate prescribing, we should not forget the vital role of infection prevention and control—it was good to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash note that. We have made significant progress, with dramatic reductions in some infections in recent years, but there is always more to do. We can make a significant contribution to that agenda by improving our ability to prevent infections in the first place. That includes work with NICE to develop clinical guidance and best practice information.

We have strengthened the code of practice on the prevention and control of infections to clarify for providers the measures needed to ensure effective infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship. We will also improve infection prevention and control by introducing an indicator, as part of local antimicrobial resistance implementation plans from April next year, to help CCGs. That will be another good opportunity, from the spring, to ask CCGs how their plans are going and whether they can explain what they are doing locally. It was good to hear Erewash CCG being cited. I am sure my hon. Friend will hold its feet to the flames, as will others.

Let me touch briefly on the international scene. It was good to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) talk about India. I had the pleasure of talking to the Indian Health Minister about this very topic at the World Health Assembly in Geneva in May. Tonight’s debate is not about the international aspect, but I would be delighted if any Member wanted a debate focusing on that, because the UK can be proud of our record in that regard. To give one example, as part of our focus on global antimicrobial resistance, the UK has committed £195 million over five years to the Fleming fund, which will support antimicrobial and infectious disease surveillance in developing countries, where we know drug resistance has a disproportionate effect. We were delighted to see all 194 member states agree to the World Health Organisation’s global action plan at the World Health Assembly earlier this year. The Government are now working towards the UN General Assembly in 2016 and are continuing to champion this agenda there.

Let me conclude by reaffirming our commitment to delivering improvements in the way antibiotics are used in the NHS. I take the challenge that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash has highlighted and we will make sure that the NHS hears that from tonight’s debate. The work we have undertaken, and are continuing to undertake, means that we now have significantly better data and information on how antibiotics are used in both primary and secondary care, but we have much more to do. I welcome tonight’s debate as a reminder of the task that lies ahead of us.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.