Antibiotic resistance poorly communicated and widely misunderstood

31 July 2015  •  Author: Victoria White

People in the UK have little awareness of what ‘antibiotic resistance’ means and how it might affect their health, according to new research commissioned by the Wellcome Trust.


By conducting a series of interviews and focus groups in London, Manchester and Birmingham, researchers found that most people, if they had heard of antibiotic resistance at all, thought that it was their body which becomes resistant to antibiotics, rather than the bacteria that cause drug-resistant infections.

This misconception often makes people feel like antibiotic resistance is someone else’s problem. Few of those interviewed think they overuse or misuse antibiotics so therefore they mistakenly think resistance will not be a problem for them. One person interviewed during the research said, “The more you take, the more your body becomes resistant to it. They stop working, but I don’t take them very often.”

The research, conducted by the consultancy firm Good Business, suggested that people understand the concept more readily when doctors, the media and other communicators talk about “drug-resistant infections” or “antibiotic-resistant germs”, rather than “antibiotic resistance”. This makes it easier to understand that it is bacteria that acquire resistance, not people’s bodies.

Failure to complete a course of antibiotics can be a major factor in the development of drug-resistant infections

The misconception could help to explain why many people who are prescribed antibiotics fail to complete the course, believing that this will prevent their bodies from becoming resistant. In fact, failure to complete a course of antibiotics can be a major factor in the development of drug-resistant infections, as it exposes germs to enough of the drug to promote resistance, but not enough to kill them.

The research also revealed that the language that is currently used by the media and scientists to describe the problem of antibiotic resistance is meaningless or puts people off. For example, reports that estimate antibiotic resistance could cost the economy trillions of dollars, or lead to millions of extra deaths a year, were found by participants to be difficult to grasp, leaving them feeling distanced from the problem.

In comparison, people were much more receptive when they were presented with real examples of how antibiotic resistance could affect them or their families, or with reference to specific bacterial infections that they might have had.

People deploy a series of tactics to ensure they are prescribed antibiotics to validate that they are ill

Another consistent finding was that people have a positive relationship with antibiotics. Interviewees felt that getting them was validation that they were ill, both for themselves and others, and that they hadn’t “wasted the doctor’s time or my own”. This means that in many cases people want to be prescribed antibiotics, whatever the nature of the illness they have, and will deploy a series of tactics to ensure they do, which may contribute to antibiotic overuse.

Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, said, “Wider awareness of the problem of drug-resistant infections could be an important part of the solution, as people who appreciate the issue should be more likely to accept medical advice when antibiotics aren’t the right option for them. It was encouraging to see that a small shift in language, from ‘antibiotic resistance’ to ‘drug-resistant infections’, could do so much to build this understanding. We’ll be using this at the Wellcome Trust, and would encourage doctors, other health professionals and the media to use it as well.”

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