Background: The development of resistance to antibiotics by many important human pathogens has been linked to exposure to antibiotics over time. The misuse of antibiotics for viral infections (for which they are of no value) and the excessive use of broad spectrum antibiotics in place of narrower spectrum antibiotics have been well-documented throughout the world. Many studies have helped to elucidate the reasons physicians use antibiotics inappropriately.
Objectives: To systematically review the literature to estimate the effectiveness of professional interventions, alone or in combination, in improving the selection, dose and treatment duration of antibiotics prescribed by healthcare providers in the outpatient setting; and to evaluate the impact of these interventions on reducing the incidence of antimicrobial resistant pathogens.
Search strategy: We searched the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care Group (EPOC) specialized register for studies relating to antibiotic prescribing and ambulatory care. Additional studies were obtained from the bibliographies of retrieved articles, the Scientific Citation Index and personal files.
Selection criteria: We included all randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials (RCT and QRCT), controlled before and after studies (CBA) and interrupted time series (ITS) studies of healthcare consumers or healthcare professionals who provide primary care in the outpatient setting. Interventions included any professional intervention, as defined by EPOC, or a patient-based intervention.
Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed study quality.
Main results: Thirty-nine studies examined the effect of printed educational materials for physicians, audit and feedback, educational meetings, educational outreach visits, financial and healthcare system changes, physician reminders, patient-based interventions and multi-faceted interventions. These interventions addressed the overuse of antibiotics for viral infections, the choice of antibiotic for bacterial infections such as streptococcal pharyngitis and urinary tract infection, and the duration of use of antibiotics for conditions such as acute otitis media. Use of printed educational materials or audit and feedback alone resulted in no or only small changes in prescribing. The exception was a study documenting a sustained reduction in macrolide use in Finland following the publication of a warning against their use for group A streptococcal infections. Interactive educational meetings appeared to be more effective than didactic lectures. Educational outreach visits and physician reminders produced mixed results. Patient-based interventions, particularly the use of delayed prescriptions for infections for which antibiotics were not immediately indicated effectively reduced antibiotic use by patients and did not result in excess morbidity. Multi-faceted interventions combining physician, patient and public education in a variety of venues and formats were the most successful in reducing antibiotic prescribing for inappropriate indications. Only one of four studies demonstrated a sustained reduction in the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with the intervention.
Authors' conclusions: The effectiveness of an intervention on antibiotic prescribing depends to a large degree on the particular prescribing behaviour and the barriers to change in the particular community. No single intervention can be recommended for all behaviours in any setting. Multi-faceted interventions where educational interventions occur on many levels may be successfully applied to communities after addressing local barriers to change. These were the only interventions with effect sizes of sufficient magnitude to potentially reduce the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Future research should focus on which elements of these interventions are the most effective. In addition, patient-based interventions and physician reminders show promise and innovative methods such as these deserve further study.