Should surgeons be allowed to prescribe antibiotics without assistance?

It's the end of a long day on the ID consult service. You and the team have decided to recommend switching antibiotics on a post-op cardiac surgery patient since the S. aureus susceptibilities have returned and you'd prefer cefazolin over vancomycin for her MSSA bacteremia. The team text messages the primary surgical team and the intern meets the team in the ICU. You overhear the ID fellow's discussion with the surgical intern, who appears to not know the patient and who can't get approval from the senior resident, CT surgery fellow or the attending to make the antibiotic change since the whole team is scrubbed in the OR.

The above scenario is all too familiar to those who practice infectious diseases, and to be fair it could apply to other procedure-based subspecialties. But the question arrises, if only oncologists can prescribe chemotherapy, why is it that everyone is allowed to prescribe antibiotics? Is this really what is best for our patients? Yes, this is currently a controversial topic but these are the types of questions we need to ask if we're going to respond to the antimicrobial resistance crisis.

A group of researchers in the UK led by Esmita Charani and Alison Holmes began exploring the effects of culture and team dynamics on antimicrobial prescribing during surgical ward rounds and the results of their ethnographic study left me convinced that we must develop ways to improve antimicrobial prescribing on surgical services.

The research team observed the antimicrobial prescribing decision making of six surgical teams over a 3-month period. These included observation of 30 ward rounds and face-to-face, semi-structured interviews of 13 clinicians (5 consultant/attending surgeons, 3 registrars/residents, 2 nurses, 2 junior doctors/interns and the ward pharmacist). The qualitative analysis identified 4 key themes that influence antibiotic prescribing: (1) working in a constant state of flux; (2) communication jigsaw; (3) delegating antibiotic management; and (4) the need for an intervention. Here are a few quotes from the study:

Constant flux: There is a hierarchy as to who leads ward rounds (WR), but this is a shifting hierarchy whereby people are promoted or demoted from their position based on who is present on the WR...if the surgeon leading the WR is called away, for example to the OR, the line of authority shifts downwards and people must act up, for example the registrar takes on the role of the surgeon, the junior doctor ‘becomes’ the registrar and the medical student ‘becomes’ the junior doctor.

Communication jigsaw: WRs are often rushed, interrupted and dispersed and reconvened because of demands for the senior team to be in the OR. The constant disruption and people leaving and joining the WR means that members of staff will rarely be present for the entire WR. Because of being constantly split between the OR and the ward, communication within the surgical team occurs across different platforms. Key decisions are made, recorded and communicated not necessarily in medical health records but on handover sheets, text messaging, and applications on smartphones (e.g. WhatsApp). On many occasions a patient was thought to be on antibiotics by the team, and after further queries in notes and charts was found not to be on them, and vice versa.

Delegating antibiotic management: Surgeons tended to see the core elements of their role as relating to the surgical management of their patients, a role that is performed in the OR. The lack of priority given to antibiotic decision making is compounded by a lack of expertise, resulting in responsibility for antibiotic decisions being commonly delegated to others.

The need for intervention: The need and expectation to intervene means that often antibiotics are initiated for patients with no or little evidence of infection, but a high plausibility of infection in the minds of the surgeons. This process is rationalized by the surgeons as being an extension of their roles as ‘interventionists’. In the absence of evidence of infection what drives antibiotic decision making is a risk of failure, and a risk of blame. What is considered unique in surgery is that a patient has to be well enough to be able to undergo an operation, therefore any deterioration postoperatively is assumed to be a consequence of the surgery, and the decisions of the surgeon, and not the patient's underlying illness. These concerns drive a more conservative approach to antibiotic decision making leading to unnecessary and prolonged courses of antibiotics.

None of these points will appear very surprising to anyone who has cared for patients on a surgical service. However, the authors are to be commended for the care with which they completed this study and the wonderful structure they provided to the domains that influence antimicrobial prescribing. I agree with their assessment that "there is a need to explicitly assign the responsibility for antibiotic management of the surgical patient to a responsible, individual with necessary expertise... Diagnosis and treatment of infections is a specialty that requires expertise and training, therefore this is an opportunity to develop, with support from specialist microbiology laboratory and staff, a role for a clinician(s) responsible for perioperative antibiotic management. This will help to strengthen the antibiotic management for surgical patients and has the potential to facilitate continuity of care and to help overcome the substantial gaps in communication that have been identified in this study...The time is right to question whether we need to address the gap in antibiotic prescribing for surgical patients by developing this specific perioperative clinician role to manage infections. This is of critical importance considering the rising challenge of antibiotic resistance in postoperative patients."


  1. Agree with everything you say here, Eli, but on the other end of this dyad, there's room for improvement. There's a huge amount of variation in recommendations that are given by ID consultants, and many consultants approach their role and practice on the consult service as if nothing has changed in medical care since 1970. Despite sicker patients and shorter lengths of stay, some don't see patients daily, as if nothing happens on those days. Recommendations are often not timely. And from the surgeon's point of view, in teaching hospitals, attendings on the consulting service change frequently, which impedes the ability for surgeons to develop trusting relationships with us. So I think there's lots of work to do on both ends of the consult.

    1. I don't disagree that we need to improve ID consults. However, this role as they describe it could be served by an embedded ID pharmacist, hospitalist or other designated clinician. There needs to be someone who owns antimicrobial prescribing.

    2. I think internal medicine residents and ID fellows should have to do a month or two on the surgical services, and surgery residents/ fellows should have to a month or two on the ID consult service. That would help people get to know each other and understand each others' perspectives. Phil Lederer

    3. I always think walking a mile in someone's shoes is a great idea. It does seem that the majority of ID consults come from surgical services, your idea could really help each group.

      As it relates to the study, though, I don't think the solution will be more ID consults but a clinician on the surgical team who is responsible for tracking all culture data, diagnostic data and antibiotic use data for each admitted patient.

  2. I agree with Eli, the findings in this paper are focusing on the surgical pathway. The full study also includes data from the medical specialty. The values and social norms across medicine and surgery are different, and all too often we ignore this variation when developing stewardship interventions.
    In surgery there is a gap in ownership for the antibiotic prescribing decision making.
    This needs to be addressed within the surgical specialty. The support provided by ID consults support and help optimize outcomes.
    They will not however be enough on their own to shift the underlying culture in surgery in relation to antibiotic prescribing and decision making as described here in our study. Esmita Charani


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