“Just say no to overprescribing!” It has such a straightforward Nancy Reagan-ish sound to it. But when it comes to drugs, whether it is crack cocaine or a prescription antibiotic, simple slogans don’t alter behavior.

While most physicians aren’t drug addicts, we do share something in common with other substance abusers. We are all human, and we are all influenced by the social contexts that we inhabit. The global health problems rippling out from the overuse of antibiotics are significant, unmistakable, and well documented. Certainly, we physicians must share some of the blame with the food industry for this unfortunate situation. There is some glimmer of hope that pressure from consumers has begun to convince a few food producers to be more judicious in their use of antibiotics.

However, there seems to be little or no pressure from patients on physicians to curtail our antibiotic prescribing habits. If physicians feel any pressure from patients, it is in the form of stated or more often unstated requests for antibiotics to treat conditions for which we know they are inappropriate. There is some question as to how often this perception of patient pressure actually occurs. It may be that the pressure physicians are feeling could be better described as fear – fear that the patient will die because of an undiscovered and untreated infection. Regardless of what motivates physicians to overprescribe antibiotics, the fact is that this kind of clinical misbehavior is difficult to change.

I recently read an article in which three medical school professors describe several behavior modification strategies that they have found to be effective in discouraging overprescribing (“How to Stop Overprescribing Antibiotics,” by Craig R. Fox, Jeffrey A. Linder, and Jason N. Doctor, New York Times, March 25, 2016 ). In one study, the researchers found that physicians who posted a pledge to follow antibiotic guidelines reduced inappropriate prescribing by 20%. In another study the investigators found that when physicians were presented with a list of medications in a format that presented the “more aggressive” drugs in a group, as opposed to singly in a vertical column, the physicians were 12% less likely to prescribe those medications.

Better results were achieved when physicians were provided with monthly reports of their prescribing habits in comparison with those of their peers. The physicians whose prescribing patterns followed accepted guidelines most closely were complimented as being “top performers.” Those physicians who did less well were told, “You are not a top performer.” This strategy nearly eliminated inappropriate prescribing. Similar improvement occurred when physicians who clicked their mouse on an antibiotic in a clinical scenario where it was not appropriate were given a screen prompt asking them to type in a short “antibiotic justification note.”

What all of these strategies have in common is that none of them uses financial gain as a motivator. Previous studies have shown that if financial rewards work, it is only for short periods of time. Instead, these strategies leverage our inherent competitive nature and take advantage of the fact that most of us want to do the right thing. We just need a little nudge every now and then. It is also encouraging to learn that none of these strategies incorporates a punishment.

I suspect that further studies will show that a screen prompt in the medical record requiring the overprescribing physician to justify his or her prescription will be the most effective in the long run. In my experience, physicians will do anything to shorten the amount of time they spend at their office computers.

At least two of these strategies hold the promise of being very powerful behavior modifiers. Those wielding these powerful tools must exercise that power carefully and be sure that evidence supporting their target behaviors is solid and continually updated. More importantly, those of us whose behavior is being modified should have a voice in the choice of which behaviors are to be modified.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

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