What Drives Variation in Antibiotic Prescribing for Acute Respiratory Infections?

Published in: Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2016

Posted on RAND.org on April 27, 2016

by Courtney A. Gidengil, Ateev Mehrotra, Scott Beach, Claude Messan Setodji, Gerald P. Hunter, Jeffrey A. Linder

Research Questions

  1. What factors influence antibiotic prescribing for acute respiratory infections?
  2. How do these factors vary across clinicians and care settings?

BACKGROUND: Acute respiratory infections are the most common symptomatic reason for seeking care among patients in the US, and account for the majority of all antibiotic prescribing, yet a large fraction of antibiotic prescriptions are inappropriate. OBJECTIVE: We sought to identify the underlying factors driving variation in antibiotic prescribing across clinicians and settings. DESIGN, PARTICIPANTS: Using electronic health data for adult ambulatory visits for acute respiratory infections to a retail clinic chain and primary care practices from an integrated healthcare system, we identified a random sample of clinicians for survey. MAIN MEASURES: We evaluated independent predictors of overall prescribing and imperfect antibiotic prescribing, controlling for clinician and site of care. We defined imperfect antibiotic prescribing as prescribing for non-antibiotic-appropriate diagnoses, failure to prescribe for an antibiotic-appropriate diagnosis, or prescribing a non-guideline-concordant antibiotic. KEY RESULTS: Response rates were 34 % for retail clinics and 24 % for physicians' offices (N = 187). Clinicians in physicians' offices prescribed antibiotics less often than those in retail clinics (53 % versus 67 %; p < 0.01), but had a higher imperfect antibiotic prescribing rate (65 % versus 31 %; p < 0.01). Feeling rushed was associated with higher antibiotic prescribing (OR 1.34; 95 % CI 1.03, 1.75). Antibiotic prescribing was also associated with clinician disagreement that antibiotics are overused (OR 1.60, 95 % CI, 1.16, 2.20). Imperfect antibiotic prescribing was associated with receiving antibiotic prescribing feedback (OR 1.35, 95 % CI 1.04, 1.75) and disagreement that patient demand was a problem (OR 1.66, 95 % CI 1.00, 2.73). Imperfect antibiotic prescribing was less common with clinicians who perceived that they prescribed antibiotics less often than their peers (OR 0.63, 95 % CI 0.46, 0.87). CONCLUSIONS: Poor-quality antibiotic prescribing was associated with feeling rushed, believing less strongly that antibiotics were overused, and believing that patient demand was not an issue, factors that can be assessed and addressed in future interventions.

Key Findings

  • Inappropriate prescribing varied substantially among clinicians, even within single health systems.
  • Inappropriate prescribing was associated with multiple factors, including the physician feeling rushed, believing less strongly that antibiotics were overused, and believing that patient demand was not an issue.


Future interventions could try to reduce the perceived workload associated with not prescribing antibiotics and/or increase the perceived workload with prescribing antibiotics.

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