Life can be overwhelming when it comes to society’s big challenges such as climate change or war in the Middle-East. A typical response may go something like, “So what can I do about it?”
A case in point is the new kid on the block: antibiotic resistance, the rising plague that a UK government report says will cause more deaths than cancer by 2050. To the question, “So what can I do about it?” there is actually a very good answer – talk to your doctor about the harmful effects of antibiotics.
The suggestion comes to us from Eric Howell, MD, who teaches and practices at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. In his recent essay posted on The Hospital Leader, he says doctors have inadvertently trained their patients to believe that there is an easy solution to almost any common medical problem. And that’s where antibiotics come in: They have been, he says, the physician’s knee-jerk reaction to a number of patient symptoms for decades, especially for a cough or upper respiratory infection. The problem, however, isn’t so much that these are typically viral-based conditions that antibiotics have no effect on – any more so than on a broken leg, for example; the real problem is that antibiotics have side effects – i.e., they can hurt you.
How so? According to Dr. Howell:
1. Many antibiotics can cause diarrhea.
2. Using antibiotics can lead to other painful and even fatal conditions, like Clostridium difficile.
3. Use of antibiotics today could make you resistant to antibiotics later in life, when you might really need them. As New York University professor Martin Blaser, MD, has been saying for years: “Has any health-care professional ever told you that taking antibiotics would increase your susceptibility to infection?”
4. Overuse of antibiotics doesn’t only affect the patient, but entire communities as well. By creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we make everyone more vulnerable to the very diseases that the antibiotics were originally intended to treat, like tuberculosis, staph infections, and numerous others.
Howell’s essay is premised on the notion that doctors are guilty of over-prescribing antibiotics. For example, he cites a study that says 3 in 10 antibiotics prescribed for hospitalized patients aren’t necessary. So Howell’s message is directed at physicians.
But the other side of the coin is that because patients are trained “to believe that there is an easy solution to almost any common medical problem,” we reflexively seek out antibiotics believing, again, that there are no downsides: If they work, great, but if they don’t then so what, it’s not like they can hurt me. To which the Harvard School of Public Health would say to you, not so fast: antibiotics have a huge downside, so please stop asking for them.
Now for the bonus material: Courtesy of Dr. Howell’s post, for those who want this message delivered hip hop style, check out ZDoggMD’s video, “Dawn of the Diff (C. Diff Rap Zombie Apocalypse)”!
Yes, “ZDogg” is actually a real doctor – UC San Francisco and Stanford, no less.