Strategies to help doctors change the way they prescribe antibiotics for patients with acute respiratory infections

Overview question

This overview aimed to summarise all evidence from systematic reviews on strategies directed at doctors to reduce the antibiotic prescriptions they give to patients with acute respiratory infections (ear, nose, throat or chest infections).


It is important that antibiotics are used for illnesses where they can make a difference to patients’ symptoms and recovery and that they are available for those infections that are serious and can lead to disability or death. Antibiotics may make very little or no difference for patients who have ear, nose, throat, or chest infections that are caused by a virus (e.g. a cold, flu, or sore throat). Doctors can prescribe antibiotics too readily for patients with these symptoms. Strategies to change doctors’ antibiotic prescribing habits have been developed to reduce the number of antibiotics given to patients with these symptoms. Several types of strategies exist, and it is important to bring together all the information on how these work.

Study characteristics

We identified five Cochrane Reviews and three non-Cochrane reviews. The reviews varied in how many trials they included and the number of participants within trials. The quality of both the reviews and trials varied.

Key results

We found moderate-quality evidence that three types of strategies probably help to reduce antibiotic prescribing in primary care. Strategies that encourage the use of shared decision making between doctors and their patients, C-reactive protein tests, and procalcitonin-guided management (both tests that measure the amount of proteins in the blood, which may be raised in the case of infection) all probably reduce antibiotic prescribing in general practice. Procalcitonin-guided management also probably reduces antibiotic prescribing in emergency departments. These strategies seem to change antibiotic prescribing whilst keeping patients happy with their consultation and ensuring that they did not need to return to their doctor for the same illness. There was no information about the cost of these strategies, so it was difficult to weigh up the benefits and costs.

The quality of the evidence for strategies that aim to educate doctors about antibiotic prescribing, that provide decision aids for doctors to help them change their prescribing, and for the use of rapid viral diagnostics in emergency departments was either low or very low, meaning that we were unable to draw firm conclusions about the effects of these strategies.

In conclusion, we determined that some strategies aimed at doctors can probably help to reduce antibiotic prescribing in primary care. Further studies are needed for other types of strategies where there is less information about whether they can change prescribing.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found evidence that CRP testing, shared decision making, and procalcitonin-guided management reduce antibiotic prescribing for patients with ARIs in primary care. These interventions may therefore reduce overall antibiotic consumption and consequently antibiotic resistance. There do not appear to be negative effects of these interventions on the outcomes of patient satisfaction and reconsultation, although there was limited measurement of these outcomes in the trials. This should be rectified in future trials.

We could gather no information about the costs of management, and this along with the paucity of measurements meant that it was difficult to weigh the benefits and costs of implementing these interventions in practice.

Most of this research was undertaken in high-income countries, and it may not generalise to other settings. The quality of evidence for the interventions of educational materials and tools for patients and clinicians was either low or very low, which prevented us from drawing any conclusions. High-quality trials are needed to further investigate these interventions.

Read the full abstract...

Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide health threat. Interventions that reduce antibiotic prescribing by clinicians are expected to reduce antibiotic resistance. Disparate interventions to change antibiotic prescribing behaviour for acute respiratory infections (ARIs) have been trialled and meta-analysed, but not yet synthesised in an overview. This overview synthesises evidence from systematic reviews, rather than individual trials.


To systematically review the existing evidence from systematic reviews on the effects of interventions aimed at influencing clinician antibiotic prescribing behaviour for ARIs in primary care.


We searched the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE), MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO, and Science Citation Index to June 2016. We also searched the reference lists of all included reviews. We ran a pre-publication search in May 2017 and placed additional studies in 'awaiting classification'.

We included both Cochrane and non-Cochrane reviews of randomised controlled trials evaluating the effect of any clinician-focussed intervention on antibiotic prescribing behaviour in primary care. Two overview authors independently extracted data and assessed the methodological quality of included reviews using the ROBIS tool, with disagreements reached by consensus or by discussion with a third overview author. We used the GRADE system to assess the quality of evidence in included reviews. The results are presented as a narrative overview.

Main results: 

We included eight reviews in this overview: five Cochrane Reviews (33 included trials) and three non-Cochrane reviews (11 included trials). Three reviews (all Cochrane Reviews) scored low risk across all the ROBIS domains in Phase 2 and low risk of bias overall. The remaining five reviews scored high risk on Domain 4 of Phase 2 because the 'Risk of bias' assessment had not been specifically considered and discussed in the review Results and Conclusions. The trials included in the reviews varied in both size and risk of bias. Interventions were compared to usual care.

Moderate-quality evidence indicated that C-reactive protein (CRP) point-of-care testing (risk ratio (RR) 0.78, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.66 to 0.92, 3284 participants, 6 trials), shared decision making (odds ratio (OR) 0.44, 95% CI 0.26 to 0.75, 3274 participants, 3 trials; RR 0.64, 95% CI 0.49 to 0.84, 4623 participants, 2 trials; risk difference -18.44, 95% CI -27.24 to -9.65, 481,807 participants, 4 trials), and procalcitonin-guided management (adjusted OR 0.10, 95% CI 0.07 to 0.14, 1008 participants, 2 trials) probably reduce antibiotic prescribing in general practice. We found moderate-quality evidence that procalcitonin-guided management probably reduces antibiotic prescribing in emergency departments (adjusted OR 0.34, 95% CI 0.28 to 0.43, 2605 participants, 7 trials). The overall effect of these interventions was small (few achieving greater than 50% reduction in antibiotic prescribing, most about a quarter or less), but likely to be clinically important.

Compared to usual care, shared decision making probably makes little or no difference to reconsultation for the same illness (RR 0.87, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.03, 1860 participants, 4 trials, moderate-quality evidence), and may make little or no difference to patient satisfaction (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.57 to 1.30, 1110 participants, 2 trials, low-quality evidence). Similarly, CRP testing probably has little or no effect on patient satisfaction (RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.57 to 1.08, 689 participants, 2 trials, moderate-quality evidence) or reconsultation (RR 1.08, 95% CI 0.93 to 1.27, 5132 participants, 4 trials, moderate-quality evidence). Procalcitonin-guided management probably results in little or no difference in treatment failure in general practice compared to normal care (adjusted OR 0.95, 95% CI 0.73 to 1.24, 1008 participants, 2 trials, moderate-quality evidence), however it probably reduces treatment failure in the emergency department compared to usual care (adjusted OR 0.76, 95% CI 0.61 to 0.95, 2605 participants, 7 trials, moderate-quality evidence).

The quality of evidence for interventions focused on clinician educational materials and decision support in reducing antibiotic prescribing in general practice was either low or very low (no pooled result reported) and trial results were highly heterogeneous, therefore we were unable draw conclusions about the effects of these interventions. The use of rapid viral diagnostics in emergency departments may have little or no effect on antibiotic prescribing (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.61 to 1.22, 891 participants, 3 trials, low-quality evidence) and may result in little to no difference in reconsultation (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.59 to 1.25, 200 participants, 1 trial, low-quality evidence).

None of the trials in the included reviews reported on management costs for the treatment of an ARI or any associated complications.