Real time surveillance of infectious diseases helps GPs

Researchers from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care and NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Evaluation of Interventions have found promising evidence that local real time surveillance of infectious disease, such as flu, could help GPs make better diagnostic and treatment decisions, reducing the amount of unnecessary antibiotic prescribing.

GPs are more likely to prescribe antibiotics when there is uncertainty about a diagnosis on a “just in case” basis. The researchers wanted to find out whether having access to real time information on infectious diseases circulating in their local area could help them make better decisions about diagnosis, and therefore treatment.

In a study funded by the National Institute for Health Research’s School for Primary Care Research and published in Family Practice, the researchers identified surveillance systems in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Spain and Norway that use weekly or daily emails or faxes to share locally relevant information on circulating illnesses to primary care centres. One of the systems was embedded in the electronic health record.

The University of Bristol reports their review found evidence that these systems could be effective in reducing antibiotic prescribing. One observational study showed an over two thirds reduction in antibiotic prescribing for upper respiratory tract infections from 26.4% to 8.6%. Another, a randomised controlled trial, showed an absolute reduction of antibiotic prescribing by 5.1% during a period of moderate influenza.

Alastair Hay, Professor of Primary Care at the University of Bristol who led the study, said “Our research shows promising evidence that adopting a local real-time infectious disease surveillance system in the UK could help GPs reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescribing. It would be especially useful in cases where diagnosis is uncertain, for example in children presenting with symptoms of respiratory infection. If it is known that a viral infection is circulating locally, then a GP could include that information in their decision-making about diagnosis and how to treat. In an Editorial published in the British Journal of General Practice today, we have set out our vision of how such a system might work. Although we don’t currently have such a system in the UK, many of the necessary elements to introduce one are already in place. Any proposed system would have to undergo rigorous evaluation first to establish its clinical and cost-effectiveness, as well as any possible unintended harmful effects.”

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