Guest Blog: Reflections on Antibiotic Use in American Hospitals

This week, we are featuring a special guest blog written by Katharina Rynkiewich from Washington University in St. Louis. Today, she tells us about her experiences researching antibiotic use among infectious disease practitioners in Chicago, Illinois. If you would like to submit a guest blog entry on your research, please send a 500-700 word piece to social media editor Julia Balacko at jcb193@case.edu.


In the spring of 2013, I conducted research on hospital-based infectious disease specialists in Chicago. Although my participants had a lot to say about antibiotic resistance, I was most surprised at how they characterized and criticized fellow clinicians’ use of antibiotics in relation to resistant disease strains. In hospitals, they suggested, the regulation of antibiotics has changed drastically in the past half century. Some of the older infectious disease specialists I interviewed remembered a time when antibiotic overuse was rampant within the hospital setting. “Anyone could prescribe antibiotics,” my participants complained when describing that era. Clinicians and hospital officials at that time had little reason to expect that antibiotic resistance would become the expensive, lethal, and complicated problem that it is today.

In health care settings now, there is more regulation concerning the use of antibiotics. Clinicians are experiencing a lull in the production of antibiotics for infectious diseases, and practitioners must make do with the limited antibiotic supplies they have. Today, there are systematic hospital reviews of antibiotic use to monitor how often the drugs are used. However, most practitioners can still prescribe antibiotics with little oversight. Procedurally, the review of antibiotics in the hospital setting is an enormous task, and an adjustment of patient treatment plans may not occur until after the first few doses of an antibiotic have been given. There is room, therefore, for antibiotic-resistant diseases to generate as misuse and overuse of antibiotics still occurs.

One way to mitigate overuse employed was the notion of antibiotic stewardship: an idea that the infectious disease specialists I interviewed frequently emphasized. “Stewardship” here refers to the responsibility of certain clinicians to manage antibiotic prescription and usage. The infectious disease specialists expressed a desire to have more control over the distribution of antibiotics in hospital settings, leaving surgery to the surgeon and cancer to the oncologist. The infectious disease staff wished for this level of control over antibiotic use despite the fact that both surgeons and oncologists can prescribe antibiotics independently, meaning antibiotics are not managed by one clinical care specialty. When asked whether, in general, practitioners today realize the importance of antibiotic stewardship in light of the dangers of antibiotic resistant infections, one infectious disease practitioner joked, “Which doctors?” My data show that  many infectious disease specialists note that their management of antibiotic resistance is quite a challenge because most other physicians within and outside of hospitals may readily prescribe them.

This issue is especially pressing because illnesses themselves are rarely treated with one biomedical intervention, or by one clinician. Few patients can be treated for one disease with one corresponding treatment, meaning that patients’ cases are managed with a variety of therapies and by a number of doctors. Patients can also have multiple conditions, again meaning that multiple types of practitioners can prescribe antibiotics for these patients at different points in their hospital stay. In these complex networks of caregiving, who gets the power to give antibiotics might not always be clear, or there might be tension when deciding who gets to limit the drug’s use. Indeed, when an infectious disease specialist is added to a patient’s chart, they are often added as a consult, meaning their advice may not be adhered to by the primary physician.

Certainly, we can expect that infectious disease specialists want professional autonomy over the management of antibiotic drugs, which means limiting and surveying the drug’s accessibility to other clinicians. But to do so, this would mean that other practitioners would have to agree to the control of part of their treatment plans by an outside party. This relationship of competing interests and access to antibiotics leads to disagreements and struggles of bureaucratic power in the hospital. As it stands, the future of antibiotic resistance rests in the hands of all practitioners who must negotiate who gets to prescribe, and who gets to control, the use of antibiotics.


About the Author: Katharina Rynkiewich

I am a PhD student in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. My current research involves studies of infectious disease practitioners and treatment of infectious disease in hospital settings, and will focus on hospital policy regarding infection and epistemic differences among specialty groups of physicians. In 2013, I completed a masters program (MAPSS) at the University of Chicago, and research for this post was done in partial fulfillment of this masters.

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