by Michael Woodhead
Health experts in Nanchang, Jiangxi have admitted that their city's hospitals are some of the worst offenders in China when it comes to the practice of allowing patients to unnecessary IV infusions.
In a country where the average person consumes eight bottles of IV infusion fluid per year, Nanchang is above the national average. Dr Yuan Zhaokang, head of the Nanchang University department of public health, says 90% of people are not aware of the risks and harms of IV infusions and yet between 60-70% of people in outpatient departments are given them. Of these patients, 75% don't need the infusions and could be given oral medicines instead. Dr Yuan says China's rate of IV antibiotic use is10 times higher than the international average, meaning that most intravenous antibiotics given in China are unnecessary.
In theory, the public are told that they should not have an injection when an oral medicine will suffice, but in practice in China this order has been turned on its head, Dr Yuan says.
A Sichuan emergency medicine director, Dr Zhen Tao says he opposes routine use of IV drips for people with colds, but it is hard to change the public mindset.
"People believe that IV infusions are more effective and work faster than oral medicine - but they are wrong," he says. Given a choice, patients always demand "infusion first", and few are aware that this directly contradicts the WHO advice for "never give an IV infusion when an IM injection will suffice, and never given an injection when oral medicine will be sufficient".
While this message is slowly getting across to more educated adults, the situation for children is getting worse, says Dr Zhen. Whenever the weather gets cold or the season changes, the hospital's infusion room is crowded with children who have colds who are attached to IV infusion bottles.
A common cold is a minor viral illness - so why do all Chinese insist on having unnecessary antibiotics by intravenous infusion? Dr Zhen says one reason is the pressure from parents with 'inflexible' thinking and attitudes. Another reason is that hospitals make money from infusions.
"Families want a quick cure-all and hospitals want a quick profit. When these two factors come together the result is bad medicine," says Dr Zhen.
The craze for children to have infusions especially worries Dr Zhen because he says it can weaken their health. Antibiotics not only kill pathogens, they also kill the 'good' bacteria that children need for developing an immune system and digestive health, he says. This is especially so for children who have repeated infusions, which become a vicious circle, where more treatments are requested because the child gets sicker and more prone to infections.
As well as increasing antibiotic resistance, IV infusions of antibiotics often cause many other serious health problems, including life-threatening anaphylaxis and other allergic reactions, phlebitis and injection site reactions, circulatory overload and heart failure as well as pyrexia (high fever), Dr Zhen warns.
The only people who really need IV infusions are those who have swallowing disorders, gastric malabsorption problems and the acutely critically ill patient, he said.