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Variability in Antibiotic Use Across PICUs*

Brogan, Thomas V. MD1; Thurm, Cary PhD2; Hersh, Adam L. MD, PhD3; Gerber, Jeffrey S. MD, PhD4; Smith, Michael J. MD, MSCE5; Shah, Samir S. MD, MSCE6; Courter, Joshua D. PharmD7; Patel, Sameer J. MD8; Parker, Sarah K. MD9; Kronman, Matthew P. MD, MSCE10; Lee, Brian R. MPH, PhD11; Newland, Jason G. MD, MEd12

Author Information
Pediatric Critical Care Medicine: June 2018 - Volume 19 - Issue 6 - p 519-527
doi: 10.1097/PCC.0000000000001535


Critically ill children often receive antibiotics. However, few data are available on the extent of antibiotic prescribing among children hospitalized in PICUs and how such prescribing differs from other hospitalized patients (1–7). Previous studies of hospitalized children reported that 57–79% of those admitted to a PICU received antibiotics (2–7), and 34% of antibiotics were broad-spectrum agents. Although patient factors including diagnosis, illness severity, and underlying diagnosis influence the decision to use antibiotics in the PICU, hospital-level factors such as patient case mix, regional patterns of antibiotic resistance, published studies, physician experience, and presence of antibiotic stewardship programs also contribute to antibiotic prescribing (1,2,8,9). Significant variability in the use of antibiotics for hospitalized children has been documented but not for children admitted to the PICU.

Physicians often overestimate the effect of therapies that they prescribe (10). In studies of hospitalized patients, it has been estimated that 20–50% of antibiotic use is unnecessary or inappropriate (6,11–16). Inappropriate antibiotic prescribing including overuse contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance and to more frequent adverse drug events, increased costs of medical care, and disturbances of the normal human microbiome (17–20). By optimizing antibiotic use, antimicrobial stewardship programs can contribute to improved patient outcomes, at lower costs (16,21). Yet, for antimicrobial stewardship programs to be most effective, detailed and accurate data on antibiotic usage are needed and may then permit patient-level analysis (e.g., treatment according to published guidelines) and institutional-level recommendations (e.g., formulary restriction) (11,16). The goal of this study was to characterize variability of antibiotic use in the PICU, potentially shedding light on inappropriate antibiotic use. A secondary goal was to compare antimicrobial use in the PICU with other hospitalized patients.


Data Sources and Patient Population

The Pediatric Health Information System (PHIS) database (Children’s Hospital Association, Overland Park, KS) provided the data for this multicenter retrospective cross-sectional study. The PHIS database contains clinical and billing data from 48 tertiary care children’s hospitals in the United States. Participating hospitals are located in markets of 27 states and the District of Columbia. Data are deidentified prior to inclusion in the database, and quality is ensured through a joint effort between the Children’s Hospital Association and participating hospitals as described previously (22). This study has been exempted by the Children’s Mercy Hospital-Kansas City Institutional Review Board.

Hospitals that did not continuously submit PHIS data (n = 7) throughout the study period (January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2014) were excluded. Among participating hospitals, children 30 days to 18 years old were eligible for inclusion, and then antibiotic use stratified to PICU use or non-ICU use. Any infant admitted to the neonatal ICU (NICU) was excluded.


The primary exposure was hospital discharges with at least 1 day in the PICU including patients who died. All hospitalized children except those admitted to the NICU were included as a comparison group. Patients who received antibiotics after transfer from the PICU to the hospital ward were included in the group of non-ICU patients, so PICU patients could be included in both groups.

Independent Variables

Patient-level variables identified for each hospital admission included age at admission (30 d up to 1, 1–4, 5–11, and 12–18 yr), sex, race (non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, Hispanic, Asian, and other), transfers into the hospital (yes/no), and payer status (private, government, or other payer). International Classification of Diseases, 9th revision (ICD-9) diagnosis or procedure codes were used to identify surgical cases (yes/no). In addition, the presence of concurrent chronic illnesses was assessed by using a previously described and validated method for characterizing ICD-9–based pediatric complex chronic conditions, represented by 11 categories: neurologic and neuromuscular, cardiovascular, respiratory, renal and urologic, gastrointestinal, hematology and immunodeficiency, metabolic, malignancy, other congenital or genetic defect, neonatal, technology dependency, and transplantation (23).

Dependent Variables

Antibiotic use was defined by the presence of hospital billing data for any systemic antibacterial drug. Broad-spectrum antibiotics included cefepime, doripenem, imipenem, ertapenem, meropenem, ciprofloxacin, gatifloxacin, levofloxacin, moxifloxacin, piperacillin-tazobactam, ticarcillin-clavulanate, and ceftazidime. Antibiotics active against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) included vancomycin (IV-use only), clindamycin, daptomycin, linezolid, tedizolid, minocycline, quinupristin-dalfopristin, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, and tigecycline. The dependent variables included the days of therapy (DOT) the patient received any antibiotic(s) or broad-spectrum antibiotic(s) during the PICU encounter. If a patient received two antibiotics on a single day, this was considered 2 DOT. However, for PICU patients, DOT included only those antibiotics received in the PICU antibiotics received on the hospital ward were included in non-PICU DOT.


Hospital-level characteristics were summarized using frequencies and percentages for categorical variables. Antibiotic receipt and the change in use over time were characterized among PICU and non-ICU patients during the study period. Adjusted trends in annual utilization and hospital-specific use rates (per 1,000 patient-days) were calculated using Poisson generalized linear mixed effects models, controlling for hospital clustering and allowing for the presence of correlated data (within hospitals), nonconstant variability (across hospitals), and responses that are not normally distributed (6). Quasi-likelihood estimation for proportions with unknown distributions was used to model the duration of antibiotic use, defined as the proportion of total days of an admission or total days in the PICU that a patient received antibiotic therapy for all patients and for only those patients within the PICU, respectively. These models were used to compare DOT/1,000 patient day values for PICU patients and all hospitalized patients (except those in the NICU) across institutions. In addition, comparisons of antibiotic use by institution was limited to the 20 All Patient Refined-Diagnosis Related Groups (APR-DRGs) with the highest antibiotic use by DOT in order to control for potential variability in disease severity by PICU. To further account for variation in patient populations across the various hospitals, we performed a sensitivity analysis including only seven APR-DRGs that were among the top 20 APR-DRGS for each of the units. Additionally to address potential differences in case mix, we reviewed data from the institutions that performed transplantation (lung, heart-lung, heart, hematopoietic stem cell, liver, and kidney) and evaluated the number of transplants, the median percentage of total DOT, and overall percentage of total DOT. We also assessed for correlation between hospital-level and PICU antibiotic using Pearson’s correlation coefficient. All analyses were performed using SAS v.9.4 (SAS Institute, Cary, NC) with a p value of less than 0.001 being considered statistically significant because of the large sample sizes used to conduct the analysis (386,914 patients in the PICU group and 3,101,201 hospitalized children).


During the study period from January 1, 2010, to December 31, 2014, from 41 institutions included in the analysis, 386,914 of 3,101,201 children (12.5%) discharged from a hospital stay received care in the PICU. Of these, 69.5% received at least 1 day of an antibiotic. Thirty-seven included institutions (90%) had antibiotic stewardship programs. Table 1 depicts the demographic characteristics and antimicrobial use of PICU patients. Demographic characteristics for all non-ICU patients are in Supplemental Table 1 (Supplemental Digital Content 1, In total, there were 2,191,997 PICU antibiotic DOT for 1,892,349 PICU hospital days, or 1,158.3 PICU DOT per 1,000 patient-days. Patients who underwent surgical procedures received more antibiotics including broad-spectrum agents both by percentages and by DOT than those who did not. The overall usage of antibiotics among PICU and non-ICU patients declined significantly each year during the study period as did the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics and agents active against MRSA (Fig. 1). Table 2 lists the 10 most commonly used antibiotics.

Demographic Characteristics of ICU Patients (2010–2014 Discharges)
The 10 Most Commonly Prescribed Antibiotics in 41 PICUs
Figure 1.
Figure 1.:
Total antibiotic use by days of therapy (DOT) during the study period among PICU and non-ICU patients by year for all systemic antibiotics (A), broad-spectrum antibiotics (B), and anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) agents (C). pt = patient.

The median adjusted use of systemic antibiotics among PICU patients was 1,043 DOT/1,000 patient-days (interquartile range [IQR], 977–1,147 DOT/1,000 patient-days), and the median adjusted non-ICU use of systemic antibiotics was 893 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 805–968 DOT/1,000 patient-days). For broad-spectrum antibiotics, the median adjusted use among PICU patients was 176 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 152–217 DOT/1,000 patient-days) compared with 153 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 130–182 DOT/1,000 patient-days) for non-ICU patients. For anti-MRSA agents, the median adjusted use was 302 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 220–351 DOT/1,000 patient-days) compared with 244 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 203–270 DOT/1,000 patient-days) for non-ICU patients. Days of antibiotic therapy (overall and broad spectrum) among PICU patients showed significant variation (p < 0.001) when evaluated by institution with high consuming units using approximately twice that of the low prescribing ones; this difference was nearly three-fold for broad-spectrum antibiotics and anti-MRSA agents (Fig. 2, respectively). This significant variability (p < 0.001) also occurred in non-ICU use of systemic antibiotics (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.
Figure 2.:
Comparison by hospital of overall non-ICU and PICU systemic antibiotic use by days of therapy (DOT) (A), broad-spectrum antibiotic use (B), and antimethicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) agent use (C). Significant variation existed for all antibiotics, broad-spectrum agents, and anti-MRSA antibiotics (p < 0.001, for each category). pt = patient.

Table 3 details clinical characteristics among ICU and non-ICU patients for the 20 APR-DRGs with the highest use of antibiotics. In this subgroup, antibiotic use also varied significantly across institutions for PICU and non-ICU patients (Fig. 3A) (p < 0.001). Similar variability also occurred in the administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics and anti-MRSA antibiotics (Fig. 3, B and C, respectively) (p < 0.001). For all antibiotics, broad-spectrum agents, and anti-MRSA antibiotics, the highest prescribing PICUs used more than double that of the lowest using PICUs. The median adjusted use among PICU patients with the top 20 APR-DRGs was 1,236 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 1,115–1,366 DOT/1,000 patient-days) for all antibiotics compared with median adjusted use among non-ICU children of 959 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 887–1,061 DOT/1,000 patient-days). The median adjusted use of broad-spectrum antibiotics among PICU and non-ICU patients with these APR-DRGs were 185 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 152–220 DOT/1,000 patient-days) and 140 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 104–162 DOT/1,000 patient-days), respectively, whereas the median adjusted use of anti-MRSA antibiotics among PICU and non-ICU patients with these APR-DRGs were 347 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 259–407 DOT/1,000 patient-days) and 241 DOT/1,000 patient-days (IQR, 196–264 DOT/1,000 patient-days). When the analysis was limited to the top seven APR-DRGs shared by all 41 PICUs, the difference in the use of all antibiotics for PICUs and for all patients reached almost twofold for all antibiotics, and three fold for broad spectrum and anti-MRSA agents (data not shown). A subanalysis of transplant services by institution showed a fair amount of variability in the presence of transplant programs, but total percentage of antibiotic use was under 10% (Supplemental Table 2, Supplemental Digital Content 2,

The Top 20 All Patient Refined-Diagnosis Related Groups With the Highest Contribution to Antibiotic Use Among ICU and Non-ICU Patients
Figure 3.
Figure 3.:
Comparison by hospital of overall non-ICU and PICU systemic antibiotic use by days of therapy (DOT) (A), broad-spectrum antibiotic use (B), and antimethicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) agents (C) for patients included in the top 20 All Patient Refined-Diagnosis Related Groups with the highest rates of antibiotic use. Significant variation existed for all antibiotics, broad-spectrum agents, and anti-MRSA agents (p < 0.001, for each category). pt = patient.

Positive correlation was observed between antibiotic use for PICU and non-ICU patients for all antibiotics, for broad-spectrum antibiotics, and for anti-MRSA agents (R2 = 0.29, 0.55, and 0.62, respectively; p < 0.001 for both). Stronger correlation was noted between antibiotic use for PICU and non-ICU patients for all antibiotics (R2 = 0.56; p < 0.001), broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy and anti-MRSA agents, (R2 = 0.73 and 0.84, respectively; p < 0.001) for the top 20 PICU APR-DRGs.


From 2010 to 2014, antibiotic use for children admitted to PICUs of freestanding children’s hospitals in the United States declined significantly. Reductions occurred in overall, broad-spectrum, and anti-MRSA antibiotic use, mirrored by similar declines among all non-ICU hospitalized children. Despite these decreases, significant variability in prescribing of all antibiotics, broad-spectrum, and anti-MRSA agents was observed across the 41 PICUs studied; the use among the highest prescribing units was approximately twice that of those with the lowest prescribing, and this reached three-fold and four-fold differences for broad-spectrum and anti-MRSA antibiotics, respectively. This degree of variability persisted even after adjusting for clinical and demographic factors as well as in a subgroup analysis of patients with the 20 most common APR-DRGs or the seven most common APR-DRGs shared by all 41 institutions. The persistence of the high variability in each of these patient and antibiotic subanalyses makes case-mix variability unlikely to be the sole driver of these prescribing differences.

Despite the decline in antibiotic prescribing during the study period, antibiotic use in PICUs remains higher than for other hospitalized children. Critically ill children receive invasive medical technology, demonstrate hemodynamic and/or respiratory instability, have acute or chronically altered immune systems, and are exposed to resistant pathologic microorganisms. The high use of antibiotics in this population is almost certainly justified to some extent as studies have shown the importance of early institution of appropriate antibiotic therapy (8,9). In a single, point prevalence study, PICU patients (approximately 71%) were found to be more likely to receive antibiotics than those in NICUs (43%) although the latter group received a higher median number of antibiotics (2 vs 1) than the former group (2).

In addition to high rates of antibiotic use significant variability occurred across PICUs. Previous studies demonstrate that antibiotic use is influenced by a complex set of variables that includes disease severity, pathogens, radiographic and laboratory data, institutional factors, and limited evidence-based recommendations (4,24,25). To account for potential differences in case mix and disease severity by institution, we evaluated antibiotic use among children who were diagnosed among the 20 APR-DRGs with the greatest antibiotic usage by total DOT. Even in this restricted cohort, greater than two-fold differences in overall and broad-spectrum antibiotic prescribing were observed across centers. However, because some of these APR-DRGs were not treated in all units, we further restricted the analysis to the seven APR-DRGs shared by each of the 41 PICUs, excluding others (e.g., hematopoietic stem cell transplantation) that could bias the results. This subanalysis produced similar variability in antibiotic use. Additionally, organ transplant services were compared across the 41 PICUs. The differences in antibiotic use among the highest and lowest transplant services could only account for small fraction of the variability that we observed. We did not specifically examine data among extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) patients, but discussions with a number of programs reveal that programs have differing protocols regarding prophylactic antibiotics. So, ECMO patients almost certainly contribute to variability in antibiotic use, but in most institutions represent a small patient population. Finally, we also evaluated antibiotic use by broad-spectrum agents and those active against MRSA, but similar degrees of variability were observed.

Although differences in disease severity and case-mix certainly account for some of the observed differences in antibiotic use even among these subsets of patients, a study of non-ICU hospitalized children obtained similar results in that significant variability in antibiotic use was observed in three of the four analyzed specific APR-DRG conditions (26). The authors adjusted for patient-level factors and concluded that unexplained variation in therapy may have identified areas for standardization of care and/or comparative-effectiveness research to inform stewardship recommendations.

A high degree of variability in antibiotic prescribing was also observed among all non-ICU patients. Overall and broad-spectrum antibiotic usages were correlated between PICU and non-ICU patients by institution. Again this may reflect institutional differences in case mix and disease severity, local hospital culture, or regional patterns of antibiotic resistance (4,19). A study among hospitalized children found that in children’s hospitals with high antibiotic use, patients were nearly 50% more likely to receive antibiotics, and antibiotic duration was 37% longer compared with institutions that had the lowest antibiotic use (6). Although regional differences exist in antibiotic resistance, this should primarily affect antibiotic choice rather than duration of therapy and so should have minor influence on DOT. Additionally, guidelines may help standardize duration of antibiotic courses. In fact, a single institution study showed that short course (4–5 d) monotherapy adequately treated bacteremia and may have contributed to lower rates of antibiotic resistance (27). Antibiotic stewardship programs have been associated with reductions in antibiotic use though almost all institutions in this study had such a program but variability persisted (28). The persistent variability by institution despite adjusting for differing patient diagnoses suggests that antibiotic use is determined, in part, by modifiable institutional level factors including local culture and practices.

This study has limitations. Despite examination of adjusted antibiotic use broadly and within a narrow group of APR-DRG conditions, variability in disease severity almost certainly exists across institutions even among the smaller group of APR-DRGs studied that are shared across all 41 PICUs in the study. PHIS does not contain specific markers of disease severity such as Pediatric Risk of Mortality or Pediatric Index of Mortality, which would have permitted more precise comparisons of patients across institutions. Furthermore, we could not assess if differences in prescribing rates were driven by treatment, prophylaxis, or both. For example, institutions that perform a high number of surgeries for which patients receive prophylactic antibiotics might result in a smaller number of antibiotic DOT. PHIS data are also limited by the nature of the database. We could not evaluate the hospital-level factors such as the impact of laboratory data, influence of antibiotic stewardship programs, physician mix or experience, and culture results on antibiotic therapy or duration. We did not examine specific diagnoses individually nor did we correlate usage with outcomes such as length of ICU stay or Clsotridium difficile rates. However, when limited to a narrow range of patients in a limited number of APR-DRGs with the highest antibiotic use, the variability was no less than observed among all PICU patients across the institutions studied.


Antibiotic use in PICUs across children’s hospitals varied significantly. Significant variation occurred even when the antibiotic use among a small subset of APR-DRGs was examined. Because PICU antibiotic usage is high compared with other inpatients, this variability represents a potentially rewarding target for antibiotic stewardship, and decreased use in the PICU may impact prescribing in other areas of the hospital.


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antimicrobial stewardship; children’s hospitals; complex chronic conditions; critical care; pediatric intensive care units; transplantation

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