BACKGROUND: To reduce inappropriate antibiotic use, public health campaigns often provide fear-based information about antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Meta-analyses have found that fear-based campaigns in other contexts are likely to be ineffective unless respondents feel confident they can carry out the recommended behaviour ('self-efficacy'). This study aimed to test the likely impact of fear-based messages, with and without empowering self-efficacy elements, on patient consultations/antibiotic requests for influenza-like illnesses, using a randomised design. METHODS: We hypothesised that fear-based messages containing empowering information about self-management without antibiotics would be more effective than fear alone, particularly in a pre-specified subgroup with low AMR awareness. Four thousand respondents from an online panel, representative of UK adults, were randomised to receive three different messages about antibiotic use and AMR, designed to induce fear about AMR to varying degrees. Two messages (one 'strong-fear', one 'mild-fear') also contained empowering information regarding influenza-like symptoms being easily self-managed without antibiotics. The main outcome measures were self-reported effect of information on likelihood of visiting a doctor and requesting antibiotics, for influenza-like illness, analysed separately according to whether or not the AMR information was 'very/somewhat new' to respondents, pre-specified based on a previous (non-randomised) survey. RESULTS: The 'fear-only' message was 'very/somewhat new' to 285/1000 (28.5%) respondents, 'mild-fear-plus-empowerment' to 336/1500 (22.4%), and 'strong-fear-plus-empowerment' to 388/1500 (25.9%) (p = 0.002). Of those for whom the respective information was 'very/somewhat new', only those given the 'strong-fear-plus-empowerment' message said they would be less likely to request antibiotics if they visited a doctor for an influenza-like illness (p < 0.0001; 182/388 (46.9%) 'much less likely'/'less likely', versus 116/336 (34.5%) with 'mild-fear-plus-empowerment' versus 85/285 (29.8%) with 'fear-alone'). Those for whom the respective information was not 'very/somewhat new' said they would be less likely to request antibiotics for influenza-like illness (p < 0.0001) across all messages (interaction p < 0.0001 versus 'very/somewhat new' subgroup). The three messages had analogous self-reported effects on likelihood of visiting a doctor and in subgroups defined by believing antibiotics would 'definitely/probably' help an influenza-like illness. Results were reproduced in an independent randomised survey (additional 4000 adults). CONCLUSIONS: Fear could be effective in public campaigns to reduce inappropriate antibiotic use, but should be combined with messages empowering patients to self-manage symptoms effectively without antibiotics.
Fear messages about antimicrobial resistance, Inappropriate antibiotic use, Public campaigns