Fear of lawsuits may drive doctors to overuse antibiotics

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Jean-Francois Allaux, © Images.com/Corbis

The growing number of Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections in hospitals may in part be driven by physicians’ tendency to over-prescribe antibiotics to avoid being sued by disgruntled patients, according to a study published this past fall in the American Journal of Therapeutics. Researchers from New York Medical College analyzed incidence of MRSA infection, information about antibiotic use, and census data including population density of lawyers across 15 countries in Europe, as well as in Canada and the U.S. While they found no correlation between the number of physicians in a given area and the prevalence of MRSA infection, they did find a link between the “density of attorneys” and the incidence of MRSA.

In addition to the data analysis, researchers surveyed 162 health care providers regarding their outlook on the legal ramifications of both over-prescribing and under-prescribing antibiotics. The survey results confirmed that the vast majority of providers were far more concerned with the potential of being sued for refraining from prescribing antibiotics than for doling them out prematurely. The findings provide cause for concern, researchers say, as they suggest that some medical decisions may be made not on the basis of the best medical advice, but instead to avoid legal tangles.