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J Hosp Infect. 2019 Apr;101(4):428-439. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2018.08.007. Epub 2018 Aug 9.

Balancing the risks to individual and society: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative research on antibiotic prescribing behaviour in hospitals.

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Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK. Electronic address:
Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.
School of Media, Communication and Sociology, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.
Department of Clinical Microbiology, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, Leicester, UK.
Tygerberg Academic Hospital and Faculty of Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa.
Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.



Antimicrobial resistance is a global health threat, partly driven by inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions for acute medical patients in hospitals.


To provide a systematic review of qualitative research on antibiotic prescribing decisions in hospitals worldwide, including broad-spectrum antibiotic use.


A systematic search of qualitative research on antibiotic prescribing for adult hospital patients published between 2007 and 2017 was conducted. Drawing on the Health Belief Model, a framework synthesis was conducted to assess threat perceptions associated with antimicrobial resistance, and perceived benefits and barriers associated with antibiotic stewardship.


The risk of antimicrobial resistance was generally perceived to be serious, but the abstract and long-term nature of its consequences led physicians to doubt personal susceptibility. While prescribers believed in the benefits of optimizing prescribing, the direct link between over-prescribing and antimicrobial resistance was questioned, and prescribers' behaviour change was frequently considered futile when fighting the complex problem of antimicrobial resistance. The salience of individual patient risks was a key barrier to more conservative prescribing. Physicians perceived broad-spectrum antibiotics to be effective and low risk; prescribing broad-spectrum antibiotics involved low cognitive demand and enabled physicians to manage patient expectations. Antibiotic prescribing decisions in low-income countries were shaped by a context of heightened uncertainty and risk due to poor microbiology and infection control services.


When tackling antimicrobial resistance, the tensions between immediate individual risks and long-term collective risks need to be taken into account. Efforts to reduce diagnostic uncertainty and to change risk perceptions will be critical in shifting practice.


Acute medical patients; Antibiotic prescribing; Antimicrobial resistance; Broad-spectrum antibiotics; Hospital; Qualitative methods

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