#9 Delayed Antibiotics

We want to reduce the use of antibiotics but at the same time we also want to keep our patients satisfied. Otherwise, they’ll just go and find another doctor.  This week we look into a really great study that compared refusing to give that antibiotic script, to giving them the script straight away, to a delayed prescription – which is where you tell them to only use the script if symptoms don’t get better in a few days. Which method is the best for reducing antibiotic use? and which method is best for keeping patients satisfied? Let’s take a look.


There is a lot of antibiotic prescribing in primary care. A new report on the Australian BEACH data found that around 80 to 90% of all antibiotics prescribed by GP’s for respiratory tract infections were completely unnecessary. And this is likely to be an overestimate because the doctors volunteering to  participate in the BEACH study are probably different to the average GP.

The whole issue of antibiotic resistance has been getting constant attention and is considered a massive public health threat. So simple methods to reduce antibiotic prescribing should be welcomed with open arms.

One such method is called “delayed prescribing”  where the doctor writes out a prescription for the patient but in one way or another gets them to only use it if their symptoms don’t improve in a few days.

I’m pulling out this particular trial published in the BMJ in 2014 out of the large body of evidence on delayed prescribing – mainly because I think it was one of the more excellent trials.  But there has been heaps of trials like this, and amazingly they all show similar results. They will be discussed later.


So this trial was published in the BMJ in 2014 and it randomised patients who didn’t need immediate antibiotics into 5 groups.

They recruited 53 GPs in 25 different practices and they gave them each a bunch of envelopes. Anytime a patient would come in with a respiratory tract infection the GP would decide if the patient needed immediate antibiotics. If they didn’t need immediate antibiotics, they picked an envelope at random and in that envelope it would tell the doctor which group the patient should be assigned to. It also had an advice sheet to give to the patient based on which intervention they were getting.

The five group were:

  1. No prescription – so here the doctor would read the envelope and use their own approach to not give them a prescription, but they had to offer advise to come back if things got worse. So they said things like: “this is viral, you don’t need antibiotics, this will get better on its own, etc.“
  2. The other 4 groups used different approaches to delayed prescription. The second group was given the script and asked not to use it unless they didn’t get better in the next few days.
  3. The third group was given the script for antibiotics like the other group, but the script was dated in the future, so they couldn’t fill it until that date had come some days later
  4. In the fourth group, the doctor left the script with reception and told the patient they could come at any time without booking an appointment to collect the script if their symptoms don’t pick up over the next few days.
  5. And finally, the fifth group had to actually call the clinic and leave a message for the doctor that things weren’t getting better and they wanted the script – then the doctor would leave it at reception for the patient to pick up.
  6. They also analysed the data together with the participants who got an immediate script. So really there were 6 groups: 1 immediate antibiotic group, 1 no antibiotic group and 4 delayed antibiotic groups.

The advice on how long they should delay taking the antibiotics was different depending on the type of respiratory tract infection. So if it was an ear infection they would say: “if things don’t get better in 3 days then use the antibiotics”, or “come pick it up from reception” or “call the clinic” (depending on which group they were assigned to). If it was a sore throat the delay was for 5 days, and if it was for an acute bronchitis, the delay was for 10 days.

They managed to recruit 889 respiratory tract infection suffering patients but 333 were given immediate antibiotics because the doctor thought they needed them. So only 556 were randomised into the five delayed prescribing groups.

The outcomes they assessed were symptom severity –  to see if those with delayed prescriptions had worse symptoms, they also looked at how much antibiotic was actually being used in each group, and patient satisfaction. Anyone over the age of 3 with any respiratory tract infection was included in the study. Including: cold, flu, sore throat, middle ear infection, bronchitis or sinusitis.


Severity of Illness

In terms of severity of illness, there was no difference between the groups. There was also no difference in the duration of the respiratory tract infection nor in the amount of analgesia used. Even those who were given the antibiotics to take immediately had no difference in their illness compared to the others. So telling your patient: “no, you can’t have these antibiotics” or offering them one of the four different delayed prescription strategies did not effect their actual illness compared to giving them the antibiotics straight away.

Antibiotic Use

There was a massive reduction in the amount antibiotics used with the delayed prescriptions:

Of those who were given the immediate antibiotic script, 97% ended up taking the antibiotics. This is remarkable because in general, if a doctor gives a patient a script for almost anything else, study after study has shown that only about 70% ever go and fill that script. So there is something special about antibiotics. Or maybe there is something special about respiratory tract infections and the desperation to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

If the patient was denied a script for antibiotics 26% of them used antibiotics. And this is very interesting. Many just went to a different doctor and got their script. Makes you think hey?

In the delayed groups, there was no difference in antibiotic use no matter which method of delayed prescribing you used. Around 37% took antibiotics in the delayed groups: whether they were given a script and told to only fill it if they didn’t get better in a few days, whether they had to come to reception to collect their script, whether they had to call the doctor a few days later if they wanted their script or whether they got a script which was dated in the future, it didn’t matter. 37% of them used antibiotics.

So offering a delayed antibiotic script reduced antibiotic use by doctors 60%. And denying them a script only reduced antibiotic use by 10% over what a delayed script did. (Note: this difference in antibiotic use between delayed prescriptions and no prescriptions was not statistically significant)

Patient Satisfaction

With regards to patient satisfaction: 80% of patients were very satisfied with the consult if they didn’t get a script at all. So the fear that patients always want antibiotics and will not be satisfied if they don’t get them is not indicated in this study. Or perhaps the doctors where very good at explaining why they didn’t need antibiotics. The highest level of patient satisfaction was 89% and this was in the patient led delayed script  group- where they were given a script and told only to fill it if things didn’t get better.

Other Evidence on Delayed Antibiotic Prescribing

A Cochrane Systematic Review was done in 2013 (before this study was published), and it found 10 trials making a total of 3157 patients comparing delayed prescribing for respiratory tract infections.

Just like in the BMJ study, if given an immediate script for antibiotics 93.3% will use antibiotics.

Again, just like our study, when given a delayed script only 32% will use antibiotics. Looking at the forrest plot, all the studies in this Cochrane review showed this same result with regards to this massive reduction in antibiotic use with delayed prescriptions.

Of those who were denied antibiotics, 14% still used antibiotics according to this Cochrane review. This is a little bit lower than the 27% in the BMJ who used antibiotics even though they were refused them initially.

Again, this review found no difference in the clinical outcomes whether you got immediate antibiotics, delayed antibiotics or no antibiotics.


So the results are very consistent. Offering a script and asking the patient to only use it if things don’t get better in a few days, will reduce antibiotic use by 60% and that’s the absolute reduction. Thats huge.


Bottom Line

Offering a delayed antibiotic prescription for a respiratory tract infection –  where you give the patient a script and tell them only to use if things don’t get better in a few days – will reduce antibiotic use by 60%. Completely refusing to give a script for antibiotics will only marginally decrease antibiotic use compared to a delayed prescription.  There is no difference in clinical outcomes when giving an immediate script, a delayed script or no script.


Firstly,  no other tool that has been studied is as effective at reducing antibiotic use as this. Delayed prescribing achieves a 60% absolute reduction in antibiotic use.  The trials that look at patient education and doctor education do not come anywhere near this in terms of reducing antibiotic use.

Secondly, the qualitative evidence on why doctor prescribe antibiotics for respiratory tract infections seem to indicate four main reasons:

  1. The first is the fear that patient will develop a bad complication from their illness – and you can understand this  because if you’re a GP who has been working for several decades, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll send someone home with a mild infection that will then end up getting really sick. And that might scare the bageebes out of you and change the way you deal with these respiratory tract infections.
  2. The second reason is that we think the patient wanted the antibiotic – and it turns out that we’re usually off target with this one, patients often don’t want them at all. They just want an explanation. In my own experience, I’ve had patients who I could have sworn were just coming because they wanted antibiotics and after I explained why I didn’t think it was necessary, to my shock they’re like: “oh few….I was so scared you were going to tell me to take antibiotics…I really hate taking them”.
  3. The third reason antibiotics are prescribed when they probably shouldn’t be is because of diagnostic uncertainty. So here the doctor is not sure whether its viral or bacterial, so to er on the side of caution they give antibiotics.
  4. Finally, the fourth reason is to do with time. Doctors fear that spending the time to explain why a patient doesn’t need antibiotics will take much more time than just printing a script and giving it to the patient. And will make them run late for the rest of the day.

Delayed prescriptions are brilliant because they tackle all four of these reasons. If a doctor fears the patient will develop a nasty complication from not getting antibiotics, they still have a script should things get worse.  If the doctor fears the they will lose the patient by not giving them a script because they think the patient really wants one – well in delayed prescribing the patient still gets a script. And if the doctor is worried about time, it’s just as quick and easy to give a script and say use these in a couple of days if things don’t get better.

Lastly, all four methods of delayed prescribing led to the same amount of antibiotic use, so it makes sense to use the method that’s easiest for the patient – which is to give them the script and let them drive their decision take it or not, rather than make them call me or leave it with reception.


2 Replies to “#9 Delayed Antibiotics”

  1. Nice work, Dr. Dan! I think these podcasts are great for GP registrars, so I’m adding them in to the collection of links on gptrove.net – please let me know if you don’t want this to happen though!

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