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Re-evaluating penicillin allergies in Veterans

Have you ever been told you are allergic to penicillin? Maybe a childhood rash led a physician to annotate your medical records for years with a penicillin allergy label?

That might not be accurate.

“Many of our Veterans carry a penicillin allergy label that is outdated and possibly incorrect,” said Dr. Reuben Arasaratnam, staff physician in infectious disease at Dallas VA.” Up to 15-percent of hospitalized VA inpatients carry this label, yet over 90-percent of these are found to be untrue.”

Arasaratnam (pictured above) speaks from experience both as a physician and as an associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He shares a story that is not just about labels but about the lives they affect.

“I remember a Veteran who came in with an infection we knew penicillin could easily treat. But there it was on his chart… a childhood penicillin allergy that had followed him into adulthood, into his service and now into our hospital. It wasn’t just a note in his file. It was a barrier between John and the best care we could give,” Arasaratnam recalled.

Avoiding penicillin-based treatment could impact patient care

This story of care postponed due to an unchallenged label is not unique. It’s echoed in the halls of VA, in the lives of Veterans who may not need to avoid penicillin-based treatments. Arasaratnam and his team recognized the gravity of this and the impact it could have on patient care.

“Many people still believe penicillin allergies are inherited when there is no family relatedness to penicillin allergy. Even if you did have a true penicillin allergy, studies show these allergies wane over time. After 10 years, 80% of these allergies will no longer be present after formal testing,” Arasaratnam continued.

Arasaratnam’ s team at North Texas VA embarked on a program to reevaluate these penicillin allergies grounded in the belief that every Veteran deserves the best care.

“We don’t have allergy specialists in every facility, but we have committed physicians, pharmacists and clinical coordinators willing to step up. We’ve been able to remove the penicillin allergy label for a third of the Veterans we’ve seen.”

Arasaratnam’ s narrative is intertwined with gratitude for his team at VA and partners at UT Southwestern. It takes a team of people who care enough to go the extra mile in making the collective effort that has made this program, possible.

For Veterans, it’s an invitation to reconsider what they know about their health and to trust in VA’s commitment to providing cutting-edge medical technology. The resolving of long-held questions for those Veterans and using the best antibiotic therapies is changing Veteran’s life stories.

“This might not seem like a big deal… a childhood rash mislabeled as a penicillin allergy… but it can affect them in the long term. We’re here to ensure they get the medications they need without unnecessary risk.”

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