By: Rachel Helyer Donaldson

They may seem unlikely bedfellows, but complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) could help mainstream medicine in the fight against superbugs, a new study published in the BMJ Open journal suggests.

Researchers in the UK found that GP surgeries with doctors who also have training in CAM prescribed fewer antibiotics to their patients, and, as a result, may hold the key in reducing the over-prescription of these drugs.

The University of Bristol researchers recommend arming health professionals with other options that might help them replace unnecessary antibiotic use.

The study does not look into whether the CAM medicines are placebos or proven to work. But the research could offer GPs and nurse practitioners a useful aid when convincing patients that antibiotics aren’t the automatic answer for colds, coughs and sore throats.

Dr Esther van der Werf, who led the study, told Health Central NZ that it was too early to say what individual doctors offered in place of antibiotics. The study analysed 2016 monthly prescribing data from GPs’ surgeries as a whole, not specific practitioners.

“Future research could work out if GPs in these IM [integrative medicine] practices have other avenues to offer to patients than antibiotics: use of herbal medicine might be an option. Or if their patients consult less for common primary care infections, or if their patients may be less keen on getting antibiotics.”

Statistics from 7,274 British GP surgeries were studied and compared with nine practices that had GPs who had training in IM. Those practices had significantly lower antibiotic prescribing rates.

The decrease was particularly striking when patients had respiratory tract infections (RTIs) – notorious for being treated with antibiotics, when often they are viral and won’t respond to antibiotics.

The pool of practices with GPs trained in complementary medicine in the UK is small. But, say the study’s authors, “additional treatment strategies… should be explored to see if they could be used to assist in the fight against antimicrobial resistance”.

Inappropriate and overuse of antibiotics is seen as the main cause of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The more antibiotics are used, the more chances that resistant bacteria can survive and even multiply.

These ‘superbugs’ mean that common infections may become untreatable and even fatal. Yet a decrease in antibiotic use has been linked to allowing antibiotics to again become effective at killing bacteria.

It is estimated that more than 700,000 people worldwide die each year due to drug-resistant infections.

There is an international push to reduce antibiotic resistance and a crucial part of that is to get health professionals to stop prescribing antibiotics for respiratory tract infections.

In New Zealand, most medical practitioners who prescribe antibiotics are doctors. However dentists, midwives and more than 250 nurse practitioners (NPs) and almost 200 registered nurses are authorised to prescribe a limited number of drugs including antibiotics.

According to the World Health Organisation, New Zealand has comparatively low rates of antimicrobial resistance. But there has been a rise in antibiotic resistance to some types of infections.

Last year the Ministry of Health launched its Antimicrobial Resistance Action Plan, which aims to combat antimicrobial resistance via methods including education, surveillance and restrictions on prescriptions.

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