Diversify Design by Fighting Bias from the Inside

Flu, STIs, and other ailments are being unnecessarily treated with the bacteria-fighting drugs—and patient demand is partly to blame.


It’s a stunning statistic.

Three-fourths of emergency room patients who are given antibiotics for a possible sexually transmitted infection don’t actually need them—because they don’t have the infection doctors think they have.

That finding, presented at a conference last summer by researchers from the St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, is one of several recent reports that say antibiotics are being used far more than necessary in medicine.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In fact, a third of antibiotic prescriptions written in medical offices are unnecessary, given for things such as viral infections that antibiotics can’t cure, according to a May report by physicians from around the country and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, brought together by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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Common Problems

The same group found that half of the antibiotics prescribed to treat very common problems such as sore throats and ear infections shouldn’t be used because they’re “broad spectrum”—capable of killing many organisms and thus more likely than infection-specific “narrow spectrum” drugs to stimulate antibiotic resistance.

This, and many more pieces of research over the years, indicates a stubborn problem that no one is quite sure how to solve.

This, and many more pieces of research over the years, indicates a stubborn problem that no one is quite sure how to solve. While a slew of health organizations and national governments are all ringing the alarm about antibiotic resistance, the medical misuse and overuse that fuel its development just keep happening.

When More Isn’t Better

Medical use of antibiotics isn’t the only contributor to resistance, which, according to one estimate, kills 700,000 people around the world each year. Antibiotic use in livestock—by sheer tonnage far outweighing what goes into humans—plays a role as well. But since medical prescriptions are written by doctors, it seems fair to ask: Why can’t they stop?

“That is the million-dollar question,” says Lauri Hicks, a physician who leads the CDC’s Office of Antibiotic Stewardship. “This is really about behavior change, and behavior change is notoriously difficult. We have a public perception, even in the clinical world, that when it comes to antibiotics, more is better.”