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Background Reducing antibiotic treatment duration is a key component of hospital antibiotic stewardship interventions. However, its effectiveness in reducing antimicrobial resistance is uncertain and a clear theoretical rationale for the approach is lacking. In this study, we sought to gain a mechanistic understanding of the relation between antibiotic treatment duration and the prevalence of colonisation with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitalised patients. Methods and findings We constructed 3 stochastic mechanistic models that considered both between- and within-host dynamics of susceptible and resistant gram-negative bacteria, to identify circumstances under which shortening antibiotic duration would lead to reduced resistance carriage. In addition, we performed a meta-analysis of antibiotic treatment duration trials, which monitored resistant gram-negative bacteria carriage as an outcome. We searched MEDLINE and EMBASE for randomised controlled trials published from 1 January 2000 to 4 October 2022, which allocated participants to varying durations of systemic antibiotic treatments. Quality assessment was performed using the Cochrane risk-of-bias tool for randomised trials. The meta-analysis was performed using logistic regression. Duration of antibiotic treatment and time from administration of antibiotics to surveillance culture were included as independent variables. Both the mathematical modelling and meta-analysis suggested modest reductions in resistance carriage could be achieved by reducing antibiotic treatment duration. The models showed that shortening duration is most effective at reducing resistance carriage in high compared to low transmission settings. For treated individuals, shortening duration is most effective when resistant bacteria grow rapidly under antibiotic selection pressure and decline rapidly when stopping treatment. Importantly, under circumstances whereby administered antibiotics can suppress colonising bacteria, shortening antibiotic treatment may increase the carriage of a particular resistance phenotype. We identified 206 randomised trials, which investigated antibiotic duration. Of these, 5 reported resistant gram-negative bacteria carriage as an outcome and were included in the meta-analysis. The meta-analysis determined that a single additional antibiotic treatment day is associated with a 7% absolute increase in risk of resistance carriage (80% credible interval 3% to 11%). Interpretation of these estimates is limited by the low number of antibiotic duration trials that monitored carriage of resistant gram-negative bacteria, as an outcome, contributing to a large credible interval. Conclusions In this study, we found both theoretical and empirical evidence that reducing antibiotic treatment duration can reduce resistance carriage, though the mechanistic models also highlighted circumstances under which reducing treatment duration can, perversely, increase resistance. Future antibiotic duration trials should monitor antibiotic-resistant bacteria colonisation as an outcome to better inform antibiotic stewardship policies.

Original publication




Journal article


PLOS Medicine


Public Library of Science (PLoS)

Publication Date





e1004013 - e1004013