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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Antibiotic stewardship programmes could halve the number of infections due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria compared with unguided prescribing. Combining these programmes with hand hygiene, such as washing hands with soap and water and using alcohol-based hand-rubs, could reduce antibiotic resistance further.

Bacterial resistance to existing antibiotics is increasing, and for some conditions, there aren’t enough new antibiotics available to treat infections caused by resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic stewardship involves promoting the appropriate use of antibiotics according to local resistance patterns and aims to give patients the right antibiotics for the right length of time and at the correct dose, reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Limitations of this review were that only 32 studies, half of all the studies found, could be combined in the analysis and some of the studies were over 20 years old.

Nevertheless, it highlights that antibiotic stewardship is effective and needs to be implemented across all care settings.

Why was this study needed?

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is increasing in England. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bloodstream infections increased by 15% in primary care between 2014 and 2015. Gram-negative bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa are also becoming more resistant.

Use of antibiotics can also lead to diarrhoea due to the selection of resistant bacteria in the gut, such as Clostridium difficile, and this can progress to very serious illness.

Antibiotic stewardship programmes have been shown to reduce antibiotic use and hospital costs. This is the first systematic review of the available evidence on the reduction of infections due to resistant bacteria and reducing the presence of those bacteria.

What did this study do?

This systematic review and meta-analysis included 76 studies of antibiotic stewardship programmes conducted in 20 countries. The programmes were assessed for between one and 12 years. Most (53%) were before and after studies.

Stewardship programmes included restricting antibiotic use, implementing guidelines, providing feedback, education, and systems to support decision-making. Other strategies included protocols for regular changes of first-line antibiotics for certain infections.

Some schemes were combined with procedures for controlling the spread of infections, such as hand hygiene.

The review only included two studies from the UK. There was significant variation between studies so the pooled results need to be interpreted with some caution.

What did it find?

  • Stewardship programmes appear to halve the incidence of multi-drug resistant gram-negative bacteria (51% reduction, incidence ratio [IR] 0.49, 95% CI 0.35 to 0.68). The researchers identified 598 infections during 3,551,589 bed days before stewardship programmes were in place compared to 374 infections during 3,579,045 bed days after implementation.
  • Stewardship programmes also appear to reduce the incidence of extended spectrum beta-lactamase producing gram-negative bacteria such as Escherichia coli by 48% (IR 0.52, 95% CI 0.27 to 0.98), MRSA by 37% (IR 0.63, 95% CI 0.45 to 0.88) and Clostridium difficile by 32% (IR 0.68, 95% CI 0.53 to 0.88).
  • Stewardship programmes alone may reduce overall antibiotic resistance by 19% (IR 0.81, 0.67-0.97). Combining stewardship programmes with procedures for controlling infection appears to reduce antibiotic resistance by 31% (IR 0.69, 95% CI 0.54 to 0.88).
  • Combining stewardship programmes with hand-hygiene appears to be the most effective combination, reducing antibiotic resistance by 66% (IR 0.34, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.54).
  • Interventions seemed to be more effective in haematology/oncology, although there were only three studies in this setting.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

NICE guidelines from 2015 recommend that commissioners and healthcare providers should establish an antibiotic stewardship programme across all care settings. This should include monitoring antimicrobial prescribing, local resistance patterns and incidence of concerning infections such as Clostridium difficile. They are in the process of producing 30 guidelines on when to prescribe antibiotics for conditions such as sinusitis, sore throat and urinary tract infections.

NICE 2017 guidance recommends that Clinical Commissioning Groups ensure resources and advice are also available for people who are prescribed or supplied with antimicrobials, to ensure they take them as instructed by their healthcare professional.

What are the implications?

This review supports current NICE guidance that commissioners should establish antibiotic stewardship programmes in hospitals and primary care.

Combining stewardship programmes with hand-hygiene measures appear to be more effective than stewardship programmes alone.

The barriers to implementing stewardship include a lack of resources (for example, the need for staff and funding), patients’ expectations about receiving antibiotics, and the influence of colleagues on the choice of antibiotics.

Healthcare providers should continue to prescribe antibiotics only when there is a clear clinical need and not for mild, self-limiting conditions such as coughs and sore throats.

Citation and Funding

Baur D, Gladstone BP, Burkert F, et al. Effect of antibiotic stewardship on the incidence of infection and colonisation with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and Clostridium difficile infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Infect Dis. 2017;17(9):990-1001.

This study was funded by the German Centre for Infection Research (grant agreement number D.20.07860).


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Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre

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