Predictors of broad-spectrum antibiotic prescribing for acute respiratory tract infections in adult primary care

JAMA. 2003 Feb 12;289(6):719-25. doi: 10.1001/jama.289.6.719.


Context: Broad-spectrum antibiotics are commonly prescribed, but little is known about the physicians who prescribe and the patients who take these agents.

Objective: To identify factors associated with prescribing of broad-spectrum antibiotics by physicians caring for patients with nonpneumonic acute respiratory tract infections (ARTIs).

Design, setting, and patients: Cross-sectional study using data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey between 1997 and 1999. Information was collected on a national sample of 1981 adults seen by physicians for the common cold and nonspecific upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) (24%), acute sinusitis (24%), acute bronchitis (23%), otitis media (5%), pharyngitis, laryngitis, and tracheitis (11%), or more than 1 of the above diagnoses (13%).

Main outcome measure: Prescription of broad-spectrum antibiotics, defined for this study as quinolones, amoxicillin/clavulanate, second- and third-generation cephalosporins, and azithromycin and clarithromycin.

Results: Antibiotics were prescribed to 63% of patients with an ARTI, ranging from 46% of patients with the common cold or nonspecific URTIs to 69% of patients with acute sinusitis. Broad-spectrum agents were chosen in 54% of patients prescribed an antibiotic, including 51% of patients with the common cold and nonspecific URTIs, 53% with acute sinusitis, 62% with acute bronchitis, and 65% with otitis media. Multivariable analysis identified several clinical and nonclinical factors associated with choice of a broad-spectrum agent. After adjusting for diagnosis and chronic comorbid illnesses, the strongest independent predictors of broad-spectrum antibiotic prescribing were physician specialty (odds ratio [OR], 2.4; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.6-3.5 for internal medicine physicians compared with general and family physicians) and geographic region (OR, 2.6; 95% CI, 1.4-4.8 for Northeast and OR, 2.4; 95% CI, 1.4-4.2 for South [both compared with West]). Other independent predictors of choosing a broad-spectrum agent included black race, lack of health insurance, and health maintenance organization membership, each of which was associated with lower rates of broad-spectrum prescribing. Patient age, sex, and urban vs rural location were not significantly associated with prescribing choice.

Conclusions: Broad-spectrum antibiotics are commonly prescribed for the treatment of ARTIs, especially by internists and physicians in the Northeast and South. These high rates of prescribing, wide variations in practice patterns, and the strong association of nonclinical factors with antibiotic choice suggest opportunities to improve prescribing patterns.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Utilization / statistics & numerical data
  • Drug Utilization / trends
  • Family Practice / statistics & numerical data
  • Family Practice / trends*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / trends*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / drug therapy*
  • United States


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents