Are Delayed Antibiotic Prescriptions Futile?

Charles P. Vega, MD


April 19, 2023

I recently posted a case about a smoker who became angry when I hesitated to prescribe antibiotics for his self-diagnosed bronchitis. He even threatened to retaliate by posting negative online reviews of my practice. In the end, I decided to use the strategy of a delayed prescription for antibiotics, instructing him to fill the prescription only if his symptoms worsened. I asked whether readers agreed with this approach. Thank you for the thoughtful comments regarding a case that certainly seemed familiar to many of you. I very much appreciate the chance to interact and share perspectives in a challenging clinical dilemma.

One theme that emerged through several comments was the perceived futility of the delayed prescriptions for antibiotics. To summarize, the collective logic stated that there is no point in delaying a prescription, because the patient will be very likely to fill that prescription right away despite counseling from the healthcare provider (HCP).

However, studies of delayed antibiotic prescriptions show that patients generally honor the advice to only fill the prescription if they are not improving clinically. In a study comparing immediate, delayed, or no antibiotic prescriptions among a cohort of children with uncomplicated respiratory infections, the overall rates of use of antibiotics in the three respective groups were 96%, 25.3%, and 12.0%. In another randomized trial exploring different strategies for delayed prescriptions among adults with upper respiratory infections, the rate of antibiotic use was 37% with delayed prescription strategies vs 97% of patients prescribed antibiotics immediately. Neither of these prospective studies found a significant difference in clinical symptoms or complications in comparing the delayed and immediate antibiotic prescription groups.

Another common theme in the comments on this case focused on the challenge of online reviews of HCPs by patients. Multiple popular websites are devoted to patients' unedited comments on HCPs and their practices, but there are still certain patterns to the comments. Some reviews describe the professionalism or empathy of the HCP, but others might focus more attention on the overall practice or office. These latter comments might emphasize issues such as timeliness of appointments, interactions with staff, or even parking and traffic. These are issues over which the HCP usually has little control.

HCPs are quite human, and therefore we might feel great about positive comments and dispirited or even angry with negative comments. So what is the best practice for HCPs in managing these online comments? A review by Dr Rebekah Bernard, which was published in the September 25, 2018, issue of Medical Economics, offered some pragmatic advice:

  • Do not perseverate on one or two negative reviews. In fact, they might help! Dr Bernard describes the psychological theory of the "pratfall effect," in which people are more likely to prefer someone who is generally very good but not perfect to someone with nothing but exceptional reviews. HCPs with perfect reviews every time may be seen as intimidating or unapproachable.

  • Satisfied patients will frequently rally to support an HCP with an unfavorable review. This group may not be very motivated to complete online reviews until they see a comment which does at all match their own experience with the HCP.

Most importantly, HCPs can take an active role in minimizing the impact of negative online reviews while also enhancing their business model. Increasing your presence on the internet and social media can help dilute negative reviews and push them down the list when someone performs a search on your name or practice. Creating a website for your practice is an effective means to be number one on search engine lists, and HCPs should seek search-engine optimization features that promote this outcome. Adding social media contacts for yourself and/or your practice, as many as you can tolerate and maintain, allows HCPs to further control the narrative regarding their practice and central messaging to patients and the community.

In conclusion, delayed antibiotic prescriptions can reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics for upper respiratory infections among children and adults, and they are not associated with worse clinical outcomes vs immediate antibiotic prescriptions. They can also improve patient satisfaction for these visits, which can minimize the challenging issue of negative reviews of HCPs. HCPs should therefore consider delayed prescriptions as a strong option among patients without an indication for an antibiotic prescription.

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