Calling All Physicians: Let's Get Smart About Antibiotics

 By Amy Collins

As a practicing physician and Senior Clinical Advisor for Health Care Without Harm, I can say with urgency and certainty that NOW is the time for physicians to Get Smart about antibiotics. 

Last week, the CDC’s annual Get Smart About Antibiotics Week included the launch of the Physician Pledge for Comprehensive Antibiotic Stewardship Pledge. A growing number of physicians and pharmacists are signing the pledge to celebrate their holiday meals by purchasing a turkey raised without the use of routine antibiotics (I’ve ordered mine) along with a commitment to meet with their facilities’ food service director to provide education on antibiotic stewardship and the importance of hospitals purchasing meat raised without routine antibiotics. 

In October 2014 Consumers Union and U.S. PIRG released Prescription for Change and reported that 97% of physicians are concerned about antibiotic resistance. Each year in the United States 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria and 23, 000 die as a result of these infections. 

Fortunately, as physicians we have numerous opportunities to take action to protect antibiotics. Obviously, we can all control our prescribing practices and support our hospital’s antibiotic stewardship programs. Hopefully, gone are the days when we prescribe antibiotics for viral upper respiratory infections! 

What physicians may not know is that the majority of antibiotics used in this country are used in animal agriculture, not to treat infections in people. In fact, 80% of the antibiotics - 30 million pounds - are used non-therapeutically in food animals to promote growth and prevent disease due to crowded, often unsanitary living conditions. Strong science documents the link between this practice and antibiotic resistant infections in humans and multiple professional medical organizations worldwide have called for the end of this unnecessary overuse of antibiotics in agriculture to protect antibiotics for use in human medicine. 

If you are a physician that shares my concern about the link between antibiotic overuse in food animals and antibiotic resistance, here are some ways that you can take action to protect antibiotics for use in human medicine:

  • Health Care Without Harm has been working with hospitals for years on building a healthier and more sustainable environment. We are actively working with many hospitals that have committed to serving sustainable food including meat raised without antibiotics. Consider making a donation to Health Care Without Harm to further support their antibiotics work. I’ve made my donation and hope you will join me. 
  • In 2013 the UCSF Academic Senate unanimously passed a resolution to phase out procurement of meat raised with non-therapeutic antibiotics. Learn how to pass a resolution at your hospital. Enlist the support of your hospital antibiotic stewardship committee.
  • Educate your patients, health care colleagues, local chefs and schools and more. At restaurants I regularly ask if the meat they serve is antibiotic free. If it isn’t, I provide education and send follow up resources.
  • Make your voice known and spread the word by sharing information on social media and by writing op-eds, blogs and hospital newsletters. Arrange a grand rounds presentation at your hospital on the issue.
  • Contact your legislators and encourage them to support legislation calling for an end to routine use of antibiotics in food animals 
  • Attend CleanMed 2015 from May 12-15 in Portland, OR and the physician pre-conference on May 12th and network with other physicians who are committed to a healthier, more sustainable future.

As physicians, we are fortunate to have so many opportunities to advocate for a broader concept of antibiotic stewardship in our personal and professional lives. Get Smart and join me by doing YOUR part to save antibiotics. Extend your stewardship beyond your Thanksgiving turkey and commit to regularly buying antibiotic free meat and why not post a photo on social media when you do it!

Amy Collins, MD, is the Senior Clinical Advisor for Health Care Without Harm. Follow Amy on Twitter: @DrAmy_Collins