BACKGROUND: Antibiotic prescribing is a major concern that contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
AIM: To assess the effect on antibiotic prescribing in primary care of telehealth (TH) consultations compared to face-to-face (F2F).
DESIGN & SETTING: Systematic review and meta-analysis of adult or paediatric patients with a history of a community acquired acute infection (respiratory, urinary, or skin and soft tissue). We included studies that compared synchronous TH consultations (phone or video based) to F2F consultations in primary care.
METHOD: We searched PubMed, Embase, Cochrane CENTRAL (inception-2021), clinical trial registries and citing-cited references of included studies. Two review authors independently screened the studies and extracted the data.
RESULTS: We identified 13 studies. The one small randomised controlled trial found a non-significant 25% relative increase in antibiotic prescribing in the TH group. The remaining 10 were observational studies but did not control well for confounding, and therefore at high risk of bias. When pooled by specific infections, there was no consistent pattern. The six studies of sinusitis - including one before-after study - showed significantly less prescribing for acute rhinosinusitis in TH consultations, whereas the two studies of acute otitis media showed a significant increase. Pharyngitis, conjunctivitis, and urinary tract infections showed not-significant higher prescribing in the TH group. Bronchitis showed no change.
CONCLUSIONS: The impact of telehealth on prescribing appears to vary between conditions with more increases than reductions. However, there is insufficient evidence to draw strong conclusions, and higher quality research is urgently needed.