Physicians may overprescribe antibiotics to children during telemedicine visits

April 10, 2019

Children are more likely to be overprescribed antibiotics for colds, sinus infections, and sore throats during telemedicine visits than during in-person visits to primary care providers or urgent care facilities, suggests a study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study, conducted by Kristin Ray, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and colleagues, appears in Pediatrics.

Many companies offer visits in which patients can connect with physicians outside of their primary care practice through audio-video conferencing, often on their cell phones or personal devices. The researchers compared antibiotic prescribing practices from the billing data of 4,604 telemedicine visits, 38,408 urgent care visits, and 485,201 primary care visits for children up to 17 years old with respiratory infections. They found that children were more likely to receive prescriptions for antibiotics during telemedicine visits (52 percent), compared to urgent care visits (42 percent) and visits with primary care providers (31 percent). Clinical guidelines for antibiotic prescriptions were less likely to be followed after telemedicine visits (59 percent), compared to urgent care (67 percent) or primary care visits (78 percent). These clinical guidelines are intended to prevent inappropriate use of antibiotics, such as to treat viral infections for which they are ineffective, and to guide selection of the most appropriate antibiotic for bacterial infections. Inappropriate antibiotic use increases bacterial resistance to these drugs, eventually making many infections difficult to treat.

The authors theorize that physicians providing telemedicine visits may overprescribe antibiotics because they cannot closely examine patients or perform tests, potentially limiting their ability to distinguish between bacterial and viral infections.

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