How doctors can reduce antibiotic demands from patients

Print this poster for your waiting room: anti-infectives-poster.pdf.  It introduces your waiting patients to the vocabulary you will use later.  Notice how it does not have the word “antibiotics”. Patients with viral or bacterial infections will see that treatment for their respective illnesses are (potentially) treated with antivirals or antibacterials.

Types of anti-infective drugs

After patient examination, how you deliver the diagnosis matters. E.g., after you tell them that they have a viral infection (flu, cold, etc.), mention that one treatment option is an antiviral (Tamiflu, for example).  Saying “antiviral” is critical — it’s a word used in many television shows and movies so the public knows it. Mention why you think their infection is not bacterial. They came to office hoping to get antibacterials, so you know you have to bring it up.  If they mention “what about antibiotics?,” respond that antibacterials only work against bacteria, and point to the wall chart above.  I.e., use “antibacterial” not “antibiotic.” In the United States, 36% to 45% of adults believe that “antibiotics” are effective at treating viral infections (outside of the US, the number is higher).  Using the word, “antibacterial” avoids this problem, completely, since people understand what the word means just given its roots. Training yourself to stop using the word “antibiotics” will be hard, but it’s worth it — the word is a big source of the over-prescription problem.

The above is my recommendation, of course.  Everyone else on the planet insists on sticking with the word “antibiotics”. For more on how linguistic “levers” might reduce patient’s demands for antibacterials, see this paper (PDF).

My other posts on antibiotic abuse.


About Colin Purrington

PhD in evolutionary biology • twitterinstagram
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