Antibiotic Prescribing: How to Manage Patient Pressures

Christine Oesterling, MD, MRCGP

December 22, 2020

Inappropriate antibiotic prescribing in the face of growing microbial resistance is a global public health problem, and a major cause is perceived patient pressure. An analysis of adult and pediatric encounters suggests that a variety of techniques can be employed to alter expectations and reduce antibiotic prescribing.

Dr Tanya Stivers

At the annual meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases, held virtually this year, Tanya Stivers, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, presented some of her team's work studying patterns of clinical prescription.

It is widely appreciated that inappropriate prescribing is a common problem that the medical community seems powerless to stop, particularly in primary care. Already, clinicians are running out of effective antibiotics to treat a range of serious infections. Stivers began by saying that this problem isn't caused by a lack of understanding about disease causation and microbial resistance or patients overtly demanding antibiotics, which occurs in less than 2% of cases. Instead, the cause appears to lie in doctor-patient interactions during consultations.

In pediatric practice, physicians have previously been found to prescribe antibiotics for a clinically diagnosed respiratory viral infection in 62% of cases when they perceive that this diagnosis was expected by parents, compared with 7% in the absence of such perception. Similarly, associated ear infections were diagnosed three times more often, and sinus infections seven times more often, leading to increased prescribing.

In adult practice, Stivers reported that patients can exert subtle pressure to prescribe through:

  • Priming. Patients help their physician to see the problem as relatively severe (e.g., a sore throat that “feels like a knife").

  • Nudging. Patients redirect physicians back to a bacterial problem (e.g., “I've tried all these medicines, and nothing worked"). Nudging was found to occur in 41% of encounters.

  • Resisting. Patients contest diagnosis or treatment in 40% of consultations (e.g., “there was pus yesterday").

Priming or nudging resulted in antibiotic prescribing in 60% of patients without signs of a bacterial infection, compared with 30% where this was not a feature (P < 0.05).

But how can these pressures be countered? Stivers offered advice based on her original data from 570 video recordings of pediatric encounters. The current findings come from an analysis of 68 adult primary care visits for upper respiratory tract infections in Southern California. Inappropriate prescribing was identified in 37%.

When researching the antibiotic prescribing problem, it is helpful to explore a typical primary care consultation. The acute medical visit structure is a stepwise process involving opening, establishing the problem, gathering information, counseling, and then closing the consultation. It is important is to recognize that patients shape prescribing decisions, and effective communication is vital in influencing the outcome. In Stivers' experience, priming, nudging, and resisting result in antibiotic prescribing in 60% of cases in whom clinical signs of bacterial illness are absent, compared with 30% where patient pressure is not a feature.

How can we change practice? Global experience suggests that printed material aimed at physicians is only of marginal benefit. By comparison, patient education does work but needs to be repeated, and there's always a reason why this consultation should be “special."

Try a 3-Prong Communication Plan

To counteract these pressures, Stivers recommends a three-prong communication plan to influence the consultation:

  • Foreshadowing, where suggesting that the cause of the patient's symptoms is likely to be viral is introduced early in the consultation. This approach was found to reduce antibiotic prescribing to 33%, compared with 59% without foreshadowing (P < .05). Resistance may also be reduced.

  • Affirmative nonantibiotic treatment plans, where specific positive recommendations given early (e.g., “I'm going to put you on some medicine to try to dry that out") are less likely to be resisted than is vague negative advice at the end of a consultation.

  • Persuasion, which involves explaining the diagnosis and nature of a cough and cold, educating about viral and bacterial differences, and presenting the risks of antibiotics. When persuasion is employed, antibiotic prescribing is reduced to 33%, compared with 63% (P < .05) without persuasion. In general, effective foreshadowing and affirmation should avoid the need for persuasion.

Stivers' research suggests that these techniques work, but to do so, they should be delivered naturally as part of routine practice. Interestingly, her data showed that physicians rarely foreshadowed, and when they encountered resistance, they adopted persuasion in 53% of cases. By comparison, affirmative recommendations were used in 89% of cases, but their effects were reduced by the physician being vague and nonspecific.

In conclusion, Stivers said that addressing inappropriate prescribing requires awareness but that is not enough. The challenge is to reconsider health policies and ways of communicating about antibiotics. There is no downside to foreshadowing a likely viral origin, delivering affirmation, or using persuasion. She added, “If we can make even a 5%-10% reduction [in prescribing], wouldn't it be worth it?"

Questions Answered

A question-and-answer session followed Stivers' presentation, and points raised included:

  • Physicians have a desire to please. Stivers countered this point by saying that satisfaction is not tied to antibiotic prescription, and that physicians often misjudge what patients want. It's important to communicate other treatment options because patients often just want “something they can do."

  • Decision fatigue is often a factor. Evidence shows that antibiotic prescription is more frequent toward the end of a shift. Doctors should avoid negotiation because it increases consultation time. Here, foreshadowing early on may help. Setting may also be important – prescription is more frequent in the ED.

  • Vaccine-resistant parents often want active treatment. Here, conversations can be challenging. Trying to persuade may be a less successful than giving positive instruction (e.g., “we'll give you a vaccine today.") Resistance is likely to be lower.

  • Concern was expressed about manipulating patients ahead of a firm diagnosis. Could this lead to missing a serious bacterial infection? Stivers acknowledged that this was a gamble. She recommended a “neutral" early foreshadowing statement such as “we are seeing a lot of viral infections at the present."

  • Cultural differences can have an effect. In China, for example, the argument between parents and physicians no longer focuses on antibiotics versus nonantibiotics but rather on oral versus intravenous administration.

  • Litigation is a factor in prescribing, especially in the United States. Stivers stated that her proposed approach to prescribing should not interfere with appropriate management. The clinical picture can change, and antibiotics should be prescribed where needed.

  • Audits improve prescribing in the short term. These results were based on recorded consultations, and that factor may have influenced management. In unrecorded consultations, inappropriate antibiotic prescription would be higher.

  • Increased point-of-care testing can reduce unnecessary prescribing. This has been documented in countries such as Sweden. Evidence from China suggests that many patients will still receive antibiotics even if a bacterial cause is excluded.

When patients dictate treatment, sometimes we must tell them what is best. Stivers closed her presentation by emphasizing that, “how you say things will matter."

Louis Bont, MD, PhD, chair of this session and pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University Medical Center Utrecht (the Netherlands), commented: “Antimicrobial resistance is a global health threat which jeopardizes sustainable health goals. The World Health Organization has declared that antimicrobial resistance is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity. Resistance to ciprofloxacin varies from 8%-93% in Escherichia coli and 4%-80% in Klebsiella pneumoniae. Colistin is the only last-resort treatment for life-threatening infections caused by carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae."

Stivers stated that she has nothing to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.