Unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics could be slashed by 1.6 million a year and save the NHS vital funds, researchers have said.

Lessons learned from the new study could also help battle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Experts at Cardiff University carried out the study in collaboration with 68 GP practices, covering 480,000 patients, in Wales.

The two-year study was called Stemming the Tide of Antimicrobial Resistance, or the Star programme.

Its aim was to cut the number of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions for common conditions such as acute cough and sinusitis.

The programme was devised by experts from Cardiff University’s School of Medicine’s Institute of Primary Care and Public Health and South East Wales Trials Unit.

It resulted in long-term reductions in antibiotic prescriptions by Welsh GPs which, if replicated across the UK, could see unnecessary prescriptions cut by 1.6 million a year.

The study was led by Professor Chris Butler and it offered GPs access to antibiotic prescribing and resistance data derived from their own practices and advanced “consulting skills” tools.

The learning tools are the result of over 15 years of work in infections and communication sciences by members of the Institute’s team.

They are designed to enable GPs to discuss treatment options more effectively with patients to better achieve evidence-based, shared and acceptable treatment decisions.

The study gave GPs access to online learning materials including videos, and allowed them the flexibility to learn and try out the new skills with their patients at times that were convenient to themselves.

“Antibiotic resistance remains one of the most important public health issues of our time, with antibiotic prescribing driving up resistance,” said Prof Butler.

“As most antibiotics are prescribed in general practice, safely reducing the number of unnecessary prescriptions is essential.

“The Star programme helped Welsh GPs gain new skills derived from motivational interviewing so they could achieve evidence-based treatment while taking patient perspectives into account.

“Although the percentage reduction in antibiotic prescribing was fairly small, based on national population estimates, if the findings of this study were replicated across the whole of Wales this would imply a reduction of well over 78,000 dispensed oral antibiotic items per year, if replicated across the UK, a reduction of over 1.6 million dispensed oral antibiotic items per year,” he said.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, resulted in fewer oral antibiotics for all indications dispensed for a year for practices where GPs had undergone Star training.