Key messages for primary care prescribers

key messages

Growing antibiotic resistance threatens the effectiveness of antibiotics now and in the future. Antibiotic resistance is an increasingly serious public health problem in Europe. While the number of infections due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria is growing, the pipeline of new antibiotics is unpromising, thus presenting a bleak outlook on availability of effective antibiotic treatment in the future.

Rising levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be curbed by encouraging limited and appropriate antibiotic use in primary care patients

Antibiotic exposure is linked to the emergence of antibiotic resistance [5–8]. The overall uptake of antibiotics in a population, as well as how antibiotics are consumed, has an impact on antibiotic resistance [9, 10].

Experience from some countries in Europe shows that reduction in antibiotic prescribing for outpatients have resulted in concomitant decrease in antibiotic resistance [10–12].

Primary care accounts for about 80% to 90% of all antibiotic prescriptions, mainly for respiratory tract infections [9, 14, 15].

There is evidence showing that, in many cases of respiratory tract infection, antibiotics are not necessary [16–18] and that the patient’s immune system is competent enough to fight simple infections.

There are patients with certain risk factors such as, for example, severe exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with increased sputum production, for which prescribing antibiotics is needed [19, 20].

Unnecessary antibiotic prescribing in primary care is a complex phenomenon, but it is mainly related to factors such as misinterpretation of symptoms, diagnostic uncertainty and perceived patient’s expectations [14, 21]. 

Communicating with patients is key

Studies show that patient satisfaction in primary care settings depends more on effective communication than on receiving an antibiotic prescription [22–24] and that prescribing an antibiotic for an upper respiratory tract infection does not decrease the rate of subsequent return visits [25].

Professional medical advice impacts patients’ perceptions and attitude towards their illness and perceived need for antibiotics, in particular when they are advised on what to expect in the course of the illness, including the realistic recovery time and self-management strategies [26].

Primary care prescribers do not need to allocate more time for consultations that involve offering alternatives to antibiotic prescribing. Studies show that this can be done within the same average consultation time while maintaining a high degree of patient satisfaction [14, 27, 28].


[1] - European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System. EARSS Annual Report 2007. Bilthoven, Netherlands: National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, 2008. 

[2] - Cars O, Högberg LD, Murray M, Nordberg O, Sivaraman S, Lundborg CS, So AD, Tomson G. Meeting the challenge of antibiotic resistance. BMJ 2008;337:a1438. doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1438.

[3] - Finch R. Innovation - drugs and diagnostics. J Antimicrob Chemother 2007;60(Suppl 1):i79-82.

[4] - Boucher HW, Talbot GH, Bradley JS, Edwards JE, Gilbert D, Rice LB, Scheld M, Spellberg B, Bartlett J. Bad bugs, no drugs: no ESKAPE! An update from the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clin Infect Dis 2009;48(1):1-12.

[5] - Malhotra-Kumar S, Lammens C, Coenen S, Van Herck K, Goossens H. Effect of azithromycin and clarithromycin therapy on pharyngeal carriage of macrolide-resistant streptococci in healthy volunteers: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Lancet 2007;369(9560):482-90.

[6] - Donnan PT, Wei L, Steinke DT, Phillips G, Clarke R, Noone A, Sullivan FM, MacDonald TM, Davey PG. Presence of bacteriuria caused by trimethoprim resistant bacteria in patients prescribed antibiotics: multilevel model with practice and individual patient data. BMJ 2004;328(7451):1297-301.  

[7] - Hillier S, Roberts Z, Dunstan F, Butler C, Howard A, Palmer S. Prior antibiotics and risk of antibiotic-resistant community-acquired urinary tract infection: a case-control study. J Antimicrob Chemother 2007;60(1):92-9.

[8] - London N, Nijsten R, Mertens P, v d Bogaard A, Stobberingh E. Effect of antibiotic therapy on the antibiotic resistance of faecal Escherichia coli in patients attending general practitioners. J Antimicrob Chemother 1994;34(2):239-46.

[9] - Goossens H, Ferech M, Vander Stichele R, Elseviers M; ESAC Project Group. Outpatient antibiotic use in Europe and association with resistance: a cross-national database study. Lancet 2005;365(9459):579-87.

[10] - Guillemot D, Carbon C, Balkau B, Geslin P, Lecoeur H, Vauzelle-Kervroëdan F, Bouvenot G, Eschwége E. Low dosage and long treatment duration of beta-lactam: risk factors for carriage of penicillin-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae. JAMA 1998;279(5):365-70.

[11] - Butler CC, Dunstan F, Heginbothom M, Mason B, Roberts Z, Hillier S, Howe R, Palmer S, Howard A. Containing antibiotic resistance: decreased antibiotic-resistant coliform urinary tract infections with reduction in antibiotic prescribing by general practices. Br J Gen Pract 2007;57(543):785-92.

[12] - Goossens H, Coenen S, Costers M, De Corte S, De Sutter A, Gordts B, Laurier L, Struelens MJ. Achievements of the Belgian Antibiotic Policy Coordination Committee (BAPCOC). Euro Surveill 2008;13(46):pii=19036.

[13] - Sabuncu E, David J, Bernède-Bauduin C, Pépin S, Leroy M, Boëlle PY, Watier L, Guillemot D. Significant reduction of antibiotic use in the community after a nationwide campaign in France, 2002-2007. PLoS Med 2009;6(6):e1000084.

[14] - Cals JWL, Butler CC, Hopstaken RM, Hood K, Dinant GJ. Effect of point of care testing for C reactive protein and training in communication skills on antibiotic use in lower respiratory tract infections: cluster randomised trial.BMJ 2009 May 5;338:b1374. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b1374.

[15] - Wise R, Hart T, Cars O, Streulens M, Helmuth R, Huovinen P, Sprenger M., Antimicrobial resistance. Is a major threat to public health. BMJ 1998;317(7159):609-10.

[16] - Butler CC, Hood K, Verheij T, Little P, Melbye H, Nuttall J, Kelly MJ, Mölstad S, Godycki-Cwirko M, Almirall J, Torres A, Gillespie D, Rautakorpi U, Coenen S, Goossens H. Variation in antibiotic prescribing and its impact on recovery in patients with acute cough in primary care: prospective study in 13 countries. BMJ 2009;338:b2242.

[17] - Smucny J, Fahey T, Becker L, Glazier R. Antibiotics for acute bronchitis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2004;(4):CD000245.

[18] - Spurling GK, Del Mar CB, Dooley L, Foxlee R. Delayed antibiotics for respiratory infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007;(3):CD004417.

[19] - Puhan MA, Vollenweider D, Latshang T, Steurer J, Steurer-Stey C. Exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: when are antibiotics indicated? A systematic review. Respir Res 2007 Apr 4;8:30.

[20] - Puhan MA, Vollenweider D, Steurer J, Bossuyt PM, Ter Riet G. Where is the supporting evidence for treating mild to moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations with antibiotics? A systematic review. BMC Med. 2008 Oct 10;6:28.

[21] - Akkerman AE, Kuyvenhoven MM, Wouden JC van der, Verheij TJM. Determinants of antibiotic overprescribing in respiratory tract infections in general practice. J Antimicrob Chemother 2005;56(5):930-6.

[22] - Butler CC, Rollnick S, Pill R, Maggs-Rapport F, Stott N. Understanding the culture of prescribing: qualitative study of general practitioners' and patients' perceptions of antibiotics for sore throats. BMJ 1998;317(7159):637-42.

[23] - Kallestrup P, Bro F. Parents' beliefs and expectations when presenting with a febrile child at an out-of-hours general practice clinic. Br J Gen Pract 2003;53(486):43-4.

[24] - Macfarlane J, Holmes W, Macfarlane R, Britten N. Influence of patients’ expectations on antibiotic management of acute lower respiratory tract illness in general practice: questionnaire study. BMJ 1997;315(7117):1211-4.

[25] - Li J, De A, Ketchum K, Fagnan LJ, Haxby DG, Thomas A. Antimicrobial prescribing for upper respiratory infections and its effect on return visits. Fam Med 2009;41(3):182-7.

[26] - Rutten G, Van Eijk J, Beek M, Van der Velden H. Patient education about cough: effect on the consulting behaviour of general practice patients. Br J Gen Pract 1991; 41(348):289-92.

[27] - Cals JWL, Scheppers NAM, Hopstaken RM, Hood K, Dinant GJ, Goettsch H, Butler CC. Evidence based management of acute bronchitis; sustained competence of enhanced communication skills acquisition in general practice. Patient Educ Couns 2007;68(3):270-8.

[28] - Welschen I, Kuyvenhoven MM, Hoes AW, Verheij TJM. Effectiveness of a multiple intervention to reduce antibiotic prescribing for respiratory tract symptoms in primary care: randomised controlled trial. BMJ 2004; 329(7463):431-3.