Corticosteroid Use for Acute Respiratory Tract Infections in Direct-to-Consumer Telemedicine

Am J Med. 2020 Aug;133(8):e399-e405. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2020.02.014. Epub 2020 Mar 5.


Background: Systemic corticosteroids are not indicated for acute respiratory tract infections yet are nonetheless prescribed in outpatient care. Acute respiratory tract infections are the most common diagnosis in direct-to-consumer telemedicine. The objective of this study was to characterize use of corticosteroids for acute respiratory tract infections in this setting and to assess the association between corticosteroid receipt and patient satisfaction.

Methods: Encounters with acute respiratory tract infection patients 18 years and older on a nationwide direct-to-consumer telemedicine platform were conducted by physicians between July 2016 and July 2018. Mixed-effects logistic regression was used to assess differences in the odds of corticosteroid prescription. A second mixed-effects model assessed differences in patient satisfaction by corticosteroid or antibiotic receipt. Adjusted prescribing rates for individual physicians were estimated. Models included diagnoses, patient age and geographic region, physician specialty and geographic region, and antibiotic prescription.

Results: Of the 85,972 encounters with 465 physicians, 11% resulted in the physician prescribing corticosteroids. The median physician prescribing rate was 4.0% (range: <1%-81%). Corticosteroid receipt was associated with higher satisfaction versus receiving nothing (odds ratio: 2.54; 95% confidence interval: 2.25-2.87). Patients who received both an antibiotic and a corticosteroid reported the highest satisfaction (odd ratio: 3.91; 95% confidence interval: 3.27-4.68). There was no correlation between individual physicians' corticosteroid and antibiotic prescribing rates.

Conclusions: Corticosteroid receipt was associated with patient satisfaction. Most physicians rarely prescribed corticosteroids, yet a small number prescribed them frequently. Identification of high-prescribing physicians for educational interventions could reduce use of corticosteroids for acute respiratory tract infections.

Keywords: Acute respiratory tract infections; Corticosteroids; Patient satisfaction; Physician variation.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Adult
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bronchitis / drug therapy
  • Emergency Medical Dispatch
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Otitis Media / drug therapy
  • Patient Satisfaction*
  • Pediatricians
  • Pharyngitis / drug therapy
  • Physicians, Family
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / drug therapy*
  • Rhinitis / drug therapy
  • Sinusitis / drug therapy
  • Telemedicine*
  • Young Adult


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents