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OBJECTIVE: To determine the rate and appropriateness of antibiotic prescribing for acutely ill children in ambulatory care in high-income countries. DESIGN: On 10 February 2021, we systematically searched articles published since 2000 in MEDLINE, Embase, CENTRAL, Web Of Science and grey literature databases. We included cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, time-series analyses, randomised controlled trials and non-randomised studies of interventions with acutely ill children up to and including 12 years of age in ambulatory care settings in high-income countries. Pooled antibiotic prescribing and appropriateness rates were calculated using random-effects models. Meta-regression was performed to describe the relationship between the antibiotic prescribing rate and study-level covariates. RESULTS: We included 86 studies comprising 11 114 863 children. We found a pooled antibiotic prescribing rate of 45.4% (95% CI 38.2% to 52.8%) for all acutely ill children, and 85.6% (95% CI 73.3% to 92.9%) for acute otitis media, 37.4% (95% CI 30.9% to 44.3%) for respiratory tract infections, and 40.4% (95% CI 29.9% to 51.9%) for other diagnoses. Considerable heterogeneity can only partly be explained by differences in diagnoses. The overall pooled appropriateness rate is 68.5% (95% CI 55.8% to 78.9%, I²=99.8%; 19 studies, 119 995 participants). 38.3% of all prescribed antibiotics were aminopenicillins. CONCLUSIONS: Antibiotic prescribing rates for acutely ill children in ambulatory care in high-income countries remain high. Large differences in prescription rates between studies can only partly be explained by differences in diagnoses. Better registration and further research are needed to investigate patient-level data on diagnosis and appropriateness.

Original publication




Journal article


Arch Dis Child

Publication Date



child health, communicable diseases, emergency care, paediatrics, primary health care