Infections caused by bacteria (such as sinusitis and tonsillitis) respond to antibiotics; those caused by viruses (such as bronchitis and influenza) do not. Prescribing antibiotics for viral infections will not treat the infection and contributes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is known as inappropriate antibiotic use. A recent study showed that efforts to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use have been effective in pediatric, but not adult, patients with acute respiratory tract infections.
To thoroughly understand the issue, we consider both the effects and causes of inappropriate antibiotic use. A cause-and-effect diagram, or Cause Map, visually lays out these cause-and-effect relationships.
The effects of the issue are captured in a problem outline. Effects are captured with respect to an organization’s goals. In this case, the impacted goals are wide-ranging, so we look at them from a general health industry perspective. Unnecessary antibiotic use can impact the person to whom they are prescribed, which impacts the patient safety goal. Unnecessary antibiotic use also increases antibiotic resistance, a growing public health problem with no easy answers. This can be considered an impact to the public safety goal. (For more information, please see our previous blog about antibiotic resistant bacteria and fungus.)
Besides patient and public health safety concerns, unnecessary use of antibiotics can result in unnecessary cost. A program at a University of Maryland hospital that monitored antibiotic use resulted in $3 million in annual savings with no impact to care quality. However, when the program ended, so did the savings.
In addition to capturing the impact to the goals in the problem outline, we can capture general information about the issue being analyzed, including important differences. These differences can provide valuable information about potential causes to be evaluated. An interesting difference noted in the study is that efforts to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use were effective for pediatric patients but not adults. So far, the reason for the difference in pediatric and adult use has not been determined, but a decrease in inappropriate antibiotic use for children is a positive step forward. (And not just because of antibiotic resistance. A 2012 study found that antibiotic use in infants can lead to obesity. Click here to learn more.)
After the effects of an issue are determined, cause-and-effect relationships that will lead to the causes of an issue can be developed by asking “why” questions. In this case, several possible causes for inappropriate antibiotic use have been suggested. Identifying causes allows more opportunities for solutions to address these causes.
Perceived pressure from patients to receive an antibiotic when presenting to the emergency room for an acute respiratory infection and difficulty making a definitive diagnosis to determine whether the infection is viral or bacterial are two of the reasons given for the continued inappropriate use of antibiotics. Patient education can help. A review of 89 studies in 19 countries found that prescriber access to education and advice or restrictions on prescribing antibiotics have been effective in reducing inappropriate antibiotic use.
A surprising increase in the use of antibiotics appears to be due to a reduced out-of-pocket cost borne by patients. After Medicare Part D went into effect, reducing drug costs for some patients, a study found increases in antibiotic use for acute respiratory infections. The study suggested that changes in patient cost-sharing may be effective in reducing unnecessary antibiotic use.
It’s likely that a combination of causes will be needed in order to reduce the prescribing of unnecessary antibiotics to a minimal level that can aid in the fight against antibiotic resistance. Ideally, further studies will be able to develop lessons learned from the successful pediatric programs that have reduced inappropriate antibiotic use so they can be implemented for adult patients as well.
To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.