Behavioral Economics and Ambulatory Antibiotic Stewardship: A Narrative Review

Alexandra R. Richards, Jeffrey A. Linder*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Purpose: Behavioral economics recognizes that contextual, psychological, social, and emotional factors powerfully influence decision-making. Behavioral economics has the potential to provide a better understanding of, and, through subtle environmental changes, or "nudges," improve persistent quality-of-care challenges, like ambulatory antibiotic overprescribing. Despite decades of admonitions and educational initiatives, in the United States, up to 50% of ambulatory antibiotic prescriptions remain inappropriate or not associated with a diagnosis. Methods: We conducted a Medline search and performed a narrative review that examined the use of behavioral economics to understand the rationale for, and improvement of, ambulatory antibiotic prescribing. Findings: Clinicians prescribe antibiotics inappropriately because of perceived patient demand, to maintain patient satisfaction, diagnostic uncertainty, or time pressure, among other reasons. Behavioral economics–informed approaches offer additional improvements in antibiotic prescribing beyond clinician education and communication training. Precommitment, in which clinicians publicize their intent to prescribe antibiotics "only when they are absolutely necessary," leverages clinicians' self-conception and a desire to act in a manner consistent with public statements. Precommitment was associated with a 20% absolute reduction in the inappropriate antibiotic prescribing for acute respiratory infections. Justification alerts, in which clinicians must provide a brief written rationale for prescribing antibiotics, leverages social accountability, redefines the status quo as an active choice, and helps clinicians to shift from fast to slow, careful thinking. With justification alerts, the absolute rate of inappropriate antibiotic prescribing decreased from 23% to 5%. Peer comparison, in which clinicians receive feedback comparing their performance to their top-performing peers, provides evidence of improved performance and leverages peoples' desire to conform to social norms. Peer comparison decreased absolute inappropriate antibiotic prescribing rates from 20% to 4%, a decrease that persisted for 12 months after the end of the intervention. Also, a one-time peer-comparison letter from a high-profile messenger to primary care practices with high rates of prescribing antibiotics, there was a 6-month, 3% decrease inantibiotic prescribing. Future directions in applying behavioral economics to the inappropriate antibiotic prescribing include paying careful attention to design details; improving intervention effectiveness and durability; making harms salient; participants' involvement in the development of interventions (the "Ikea effect"); factoring in patient satisfaction; and patient-facing nudges about antibiotic use and care-seeking. In addition, the COVID pandemic could aid in ambulatory antibiotic prescribing improvements due to changing cognitive frames around respiratory symptom evaluation and antibiotic prescribing. Implications: To improve ambulatory antibiotic prescribing, several behavioral economics–informed approaches—especially precommitment, justification alerts, and peer comparison—have reduced the rates of inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics to low levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1654-1667
Number of pages14
JournalClinical Therapeutics
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • ambulatory care
  • anti-infective agents
  • antimicrobial stewardship
  • behavioral
  • behavioral sciences
  • economics
  • physicians
  • primary care
  • primary health care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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