Public Policy

Hospitalists Adopt Strategies to Become More Responsible Prescribers of Antibiotics


A recent CDC study found that nearly a third of antibiotics might be inappropriately prescribed.1 The report also found wide variation in antibiotic prescribing practices for patients in similar treatment areas in hospitals across the country.

Across the globe, antibiotic resistance has become a daunting threat. Some public health officials have labeled it a crisis, and improper prescribing and use of antibiotics is at least partly to blame, experts say.

“We’re dangerously close to a pre-antibiotic era where we don’t have antibiotics to treat common infections,” says Neil Fishman, MD, chief patient safety officer and associate chief medical officer at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and past president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. “We are seeing more and more infections, usually hospital-based, caused by bacterial resistance to most, if not all, of the antibiotics that we have.”

It’s an issue hospitalists around the country are championing.

“I think for a long time there’s been a misperception that antibiotic stewardship is at odds with hospitalists, who are managing very busy patient loads and managing inpatient prescribing,” says Arjun Srinivasan, MD, FSHEA, associate director for the CDC’s Healthcare Associated Infection Prevention Program and medical director of Get Smart for Healthcare in the division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the CDC. Dr. Srinivasan is one of the authors of the new CDC study.

But “they have taken that ball and run with it,” says Dr. Srinivasan, who has worked with the Society of Hospital Medicine to address antibiotic resistance issues.

The goals of the study, published in the CDC’s Vital Signs on March 4, 2014, were to evaluate the extent and rationale for the prescribing of antibiotics in U.S. hospitals, while demonstrating opportunities for improvement in prescribing practices.

We are seeing more and more infections, usually hospital-based, caused by bacterial resistance to most, if not all, of the antibiotics that we have.

—Neil Fishman, MD, chief patient safety officer and associate chief medical officer at the University of Pennsylvania Health System

Study authors analyzed data from the Truven Health MarketScan Hospital Drug Database and the CDC’s Emerging Infection Program and, using a model based on the data, demonstrated that a 30% reduction in broad-spectrum antibiotics use would decrease Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) by 26%. Overall antibiotic use would drop by 5%.

According to the CDC, antibiotics are among the most frequent causes of adverse drug events among hospitalized patients in the U.S., and complications like CDI can be deadly. In fact, 250,000 hospitalized patients are infected with CDI each year, resulting in 14,000 deaths.

“We’re really at a critical juncture in healthcare now,” Dr. Fishman says. “The field of stewardship has evolved mainly in academic tertiary care settings. The CDC report is timely because it highlights the necessity of making sure antibiotics are used appropriately in all healthcare settings.”

Take a Break

One of the ways in which hospitalists have addressed the need for more appropriate antibiotic prescribing in their institutions is the practice of an “antibiotic time-out.”

“After some point, when the dust settles at about 48-72 hours, you can evaluate the patient’s progress, evaluate their studies, [and] you may have culture results,” says Scott Flanders, MD, FACP, MHM, professor of internal medicine and director of hospital medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. At that point, physicians can decide whether to maintain a patient on the original antibiotic, alter the duration of treatment, or take them off the treatment altogether.

Dr. Flanders and a colleague published an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine that coincided with the CDC report.2 A 2007 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that the choice of antibiotic agent or duration of treatment can be incorrect in as many as half of all cases in which antibiotics are prescribed.3

Dr. Flanders, a past president of SHM who has worked extensively with the CDC and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, was behind the development of the time-out strategy. Dr. Srinivasan says the clinical utility of the method was “eye-opening.”

The strategy, which has taken hold among hospital groups the CDC has worked with, has demonstrated that stewardship and patient management are not at odds, Dr. Srinivasan says. Despite patient sign-outs and hand-offs, the time-out strategy allows any clinician to track a patient’s antibiotic status and reevaluate the treatment plan.

Having a process is critical to more responsible prescribing practices, Dr. Flanders says. He attributes much of the variability in antibiotics prescribing among similar departments at hospitals across the country to a lack of standards, though he noted that variability in patient populations undoubtedly plays a role.

Lack of Stats

The CDC report showed up to a threefold difference in the number of antibiotics prescribed to patients in similar hospital settings at hospitals across the country. The reasons for this are not known, Dr. Fishman says.

“The main reason we don’t know is we don’t have a good mechanism in the U.S. right now to monitor antibiotics use,” he explains. “We don’t have a way for healthcare facilities to benchmark their use.”

Without good strategies to monitor and develop more responsible antibiotics prescription practices, Dr. Flanders believes many physicians find themselves trapped by the “chagrin” of not prescribing.

“Patients often enter the hospital without a clear diagnosis,” he says. “They are quite ill. They may have a serious bacterial infection, and, in diagnosing them, we can’t guess wrong and make the decision to withhold antibiotics, only to find out later the patient is infected.

“We know delays increase mortality, and that’s not an acceptable option.”

Patients often enter the hospital without a clear diagnosis. They are quite ill. They may have a serious bacterial infection, and, in diagnosing them, we can’t guess wrong and make the decision to withhold antibiotics, only to find out later the patient is infected.

—Scott Flanders, MD, FACP, MHM, professor of internal medicine, director of hospital medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, past president, SHM

Beyond the Bedside

Many physicians fail to consider the bigger societal implications when prescribing antibiotics for sick patients in their charge, because their responsibility is, first and foremost, to that individual. But, Dr. Srinivasan says, “good antibiotic stewardship is beneficial to the patient lying in the bed in front of you, because every day we are confronted with C. diff. infections, adverse drug events, all of these issues.”

Strategies and processes help hospitalists make the best decision for their patients at the time they require care, while providing room for adaptation and the improvements that serve all patients.

Some institutions use interventions like prospective audit and feedback monitoring to help physicians become more responsible antibiotic prescribers, says Dr. Fishman, who worked with infectious disease specialists at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s to develop a stewardship program there.

“In our institution, we see better outcomes—lower complications—usually associated with a decreased length of stay, at least in the ICU for critically ill patients—and increased cure rates,” he says.

Stewardship efforts take investment on the part of the hospital. Dr. Fishman cited a recent study at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania that looked at whether a particular education strategy the hospital implemented actually led to improvements.4

“It was successful in intervening in this problem [of inappropriate prescribing] in pediatricians, but it did take ongoing education of both healthcare providers and patients,” he says, noting that large financial and time investments are necessary for the ongoing training and follow-up that is necessary.

And patients need to be educated, too.

“It takes a minute to write that prescription and probably 15 or 20 minutes not to write it,” Dr. Fishman says. “We need to educate patients about potential complications of antibiotics use, as well as the signs and symptoms of infection.”

The CDC report is a call to action for all healthcare providers to consider how they can become better antibiotic stewards. There are very few new antibiotics on the market and little in the pipeline. All providers must do what they can to preserve the antibiotics we currently have, Dr. Fishman says.

“There is opportunity, and I think hospitalists are up to the challenge,” Dr. Flanders says. “They are doing lots of work to improve quality across lots of domains in their hospitals. I think this is an area where attention is deserved.”

Kelly April Tyrrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vital signs: improving antibiotic use among hospitalized patients. Available at: Accessed August 31, 2014.
  2. Flanders SA, Saint S. Why does antrimicrobial overuse in hospitalized patients persist? JAMA Internal Medicine online. Available at: Accessed August 31, 2014.
  3. Dellit TH, Owens RC, McGowan JE, et al. Clinical Infectious Diseases online. Available at: Accessed August 31, 2014.
  4. Gerber JS, Prasad PA, Fiks A, et al. Effect of an outpatient antimicrobial stewardship intervention on broad-spectrum antibiotic prescribing by primary care pediatricians. JAMA. 2013;309(22):2345-2352.

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