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Objective To estimate the effectiveness of different strategies involving delayed antibiotic prescription for acute respiratory tract infections. Design Open, pragmatic, parallel group, factorial, randomised controlled trial. Setting Primary care in the United Kingdom. Patients 889 patients aged 3 years and over with acute respiratory tract infection, recruited between 3 March 2010 and 28 March 2012 by 53 health professionals in 25 practices. Interventions Patients judged not to need immediate antibiotics were randomised to undergo four strategies of delayed prescription: recontact for a prescription, post-dated prescription, collection of the prescription, and be given the prescription (patient led). During the trial, a strategy of no antibiotic prescription was added as another randomised comparison. Analysis was intention to treat. Main outcome measures Mean symptom severity (0-6 scale) at days 2-4 (primary outcome), antibiotic use, and patients’ beliefs in the effectiveness of antibiotic use. Secondary analysis included comparison with immediate use of antibiotics. Results Mean symptom severity had minimal differences between the strategies involving no prescription and delayed prescription (recontact, post-date, collection, patient led; 1.62, 1.60, 1.82, 1.68, 1.75, respectively; likelihood ratio test χ2 2.61, P=0.625). Duration of symptoms rated moderately bad or worse also did not differ between no prescription and delayed prescription strategies combined (median 3 days v 4 days; 4.29, P=0.368). There were modest and non-significant differences in patients very satisfied with the consultation between the randomised groups (79%, 74%, 80%, 88%, 89%, respectively; likelihood ratio test χ2 2.38, P=0.667), belief in antibiotics (71%, 74%, 73%, 72%, 66%; 1.62, P=0.805), or antibiotic use (26%, 37%, 37%, 33%, 39%; 4.96, P=0.292). By contrast, most patients given immediate antibiotics used antibiotics (97%) and strongly believed in them (93%), but with no benefit for symptom severity (score 1.76) or duration (median 4 days). Conclusion trategies of no prescription or delayed antibiotic prescription result in fewer than 40% of patients using antibiotics, and are associated with less strong beliefs in antibiotics, and similar symptomatic outcomes to immediate prescription. If clear advice is given to patients, there is probably little to choose between the different strategies of delayed prescription.

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