Background: Upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) are the most common reason for individuals to seek health care in the United States. Inappropriate antibiotic use exposes patients unnecessarily to potential adverse events and increases the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One of the reasons physicians may prescribe an antibiotic inappropriately is to save time.
Objective: The aim of this study was to determine whether there is an association between antibiotic use and a shorter visit duration in adults with URTIs.
Methods: Visits to office-based primary care physicians made by adults aged 18 to 60 years from 1995 through 2000 were extracted from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Visits that resulted in a primary diagnosis of acute URTI; acute nasopharyngitis; acute bronchitis; sinusitis; streptococcal sore throat, acute pharyngitis, or acute tonsillitis; or otitis media were included in the study. Visits associated with >1 diagnosis were included in a separate category Visit duration was defined as the face-to-face time between the patient and physician.
Results: There were 3764 visits that met the criteria for inclusion in this study, representing an estimated 27 million annual visits to office-based primary care physicians by adults with URTIs. Antibiotics were prescribed in 67% of visits. The mean visit duration associated with prescription of an antibiotic was 14.2 minutes, compared with 15.2 minutes without prescription of an antibiotic (P = 0.007). In multivariable modeling, independent predictors of visit duration were calendar year (additional 0.3 minute per year; 95% CI, 0.1 to 0.6), internal medicine specialty (additional 2.2 minutes vs family practice; 95% CI, 1.3 to 3.1), covisit with a nurse-practitioner or physician assistant (6.6 minutes shorter; 95% CI, -2.7 to -10.6), and Midwestern location of practice (1.1 minutes shorter vs Northeast; 95% CI, -0.1 to -2.2). Antibiotic use was marginally associated with a shorter visit duration (0.7 minute shorter; 95% CI, 0.0 to -1.3; P = NS).
Conclusions: In the present study, antibiotic use was marginally associated with a shorter visit duration for adults with URTIs. Any potential efficiencies gained by physicians through prescribing antibiotics for adults with URTIs are likely to be outweighed by increases in antimicrobial resistance and exposure of patients to unneeded medication.