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A Call for Responsible Antibiotic Use in the Era of Telehealth

By PHIYEN NGUYEN

Telehealth has revolutionized health care as we know it, but it may also be contributing to the overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance.

Antibiotics and the Risks

Antibiotics treat infections caused by bacteria, like strep throat and whooping cough. They do this by either killing or slowing the growth of bacteria. Antibiotics save millions of lives around the world each year, but they can also be overprescribed and overused.

Excessive antibiotic use can lead to antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR happens when germs from the initial infection continue to survive, even after a patient completes a course of antibiotics. In other words, the germs are now resilient against that treatment. Resistance to even one type of antibiotic can lead to serious complications and prolonged recovery, requiring additional courses of stronger medicines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that AMR leads to over 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths each year in the United States. By 2050, AMR is predicted to cause about 10 million deaths annually, resulting in a global public health crisis.

Increase in Telehealth and Antibiotic Prescriptions

Surprisingly, the growth of telehealth care may be contributing to antibiotic overprescribing and overuse.

Telehealth exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and, today, 87 percent of physicians use it regularly. Telehealth allows patients to receive health care virtually, through telephone, video, or other forms of technology. It offers increased flexibility, decreased travel time, and less risk of spreading disease for both patients and providers.

Popular platforms like GoodRx and Doctor on Demand market convenient and easy access to health care. Others offer specialized services, like WISP that focuses on women’s health. Despite its benefits, telehealth is not perfect.

It limits physical examinations (by definition) and rapport building, which changes the patient-provider relationship. It’s also unclear whether providers can truly make accurate diagnoses in a virtual setting in some cases.

Studies also show higher antibiotic prescribing rates in virtual consultations compared to in-person visits.

For instance, physicians were more likely to prescribe antibiotics for urinary tract infections during telehealth appointments (99%) compared to an office visit (49%). In another study, 55 percent of telehealth visits for respiratory tract infections resulted in antibiotic prescriptions, many of these cases were later found to not require them.

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