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An ethnographic exploration of influences on prescribing in general practice: why is there variation in prescribing practices?

Grant, Aileen; Sullivan, Frank; Dowell, Jon


Frank Sullivan

Jon Dowell


Background: Prescribing is a core activity for general practitioners, yet significant variation in the quality of prescribing has been reported. This suggests there may be room for improvement in the application of the current best research evidence. There has been substantial investment in technologies and interventions to address this issue, but effect sizes so far have been small to moderate. This suggests that prescribing is a decision-making process that is not sufficiently understood. By understanding more about prescribing processes and the implementation of research evidence, variation may more easily be understood and more effective interventions proposed. Methods: An ethnographic study in three Scottish general practices with diverse organizational characteristics. Practices were ranked by their performance against Audit Scotland prescribing quality indicators, incorporating established best research evidence. Two practices of high prescribing quality and one practice of low prescribing quality were recruited. Participant observation, formal and informal interviews, and a review of practice documentation were employed. Results: Practices ranked as high prescribing quality consistently made and applied macro and micro prescribing decisions, whereas the low-ranking practice only made micro prescribing decisions. Macro prescribing decisions were collective, policy decisions made considering research evidence in light of the average patient, one disease, condition, or drug. Micro prescribing decisions were made in consultation with the patient considering their views, preferences, circumstances and other conditions (if necessary). Although micro prescribing can operate independently, the implementation of evidence-based, quality prescribing was attributable to an interdependent relationship. Macro prescribing policy enabled prescribing decisions to be based on scientific evidence and applied consistently where possible. Ultimately, this influenced prescribing decisions that occur at the micro level in consultation with patients. Conclusion: General practitioners in the higher prescribing quality practices made two different 'types' of prescribing decision; macro and micro. Macro prescribing informs micro prescribing and without a macro basis to draw upon the low-ranked practice had no effective mechanism to engage with, reflect on and implement relevant evidence. Practices that recognize these two levels of decision making about prescribing are more likely to be able to implement higher quality evidence.


GRANT, A., SULLIVAN, F. and DOWELL, J. 2013. An ethnographic exploration of influences on prescribing in general practice: why is there variation in prescribing practices? Implementation science [online], 8, article 72. Available from:

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jun 21, 2013
Online Publication Date Jun 21, 2013
Publication Date Dec 31, 2013
Deposit Date Jul 24, 2018
Publicly Available Date Jul 24, 2018
Journal Implementation Science
Electronic ISSN 1748-5908
Publisher Springer
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 8
Article Number 72
Keywords Prescribing; Quality; General practice; Primary care; Ethnographic; Qualitative
Public URL


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