Six percent of patients are allergic to penicillin according to their medical records. While this designation protects a small number of truly allergic patients from serious reactions, those who are incorrectly labelled may be denied access to recommended first line treatment for many infections. Removal of incorrect penicillin allergy may have positive health consequences for the individual and the general population.
We aimed to explore primary care physicians’ (PCPs) and patients’ views and understanding of penicillin allergy with a focus on clinical management of infections in the face of a penicillin allergy record.
We conducted an interview study with 31 patients with a penicillin allergy record, and 19 PCPs in the North of England. Data were analysed thematically.
Patients made sense of their allergy status by considering the timing and severity of symptoms. Diagnosis of penicillin allergy was reported to be ‘imperfect’ with PCPs relying on patient reports and incomplete medical records. PCPs and patients often suspected that an allergy record was incorrect, but PCPs were reluctant to change records. PCPs had limited knowledge of allergy services. PCPs often prescribed alternative antibiotics which were easy to identify. Both patients and PCPs differed in the extent to which they were aware of the negative consequences of incorrect penicillin allergy records, their relevance and importance to their lives, and management of penicillin allergy.
PCPs and patients appear insufficiently aware of potential harms associated with incorrect penicillin allergy records. Some of the problems experienced by PCPs could be reduced by ensuring the details of newly diagnosed reactions to antibiotics are clearly documented. In order for PCPs to overturn more incorrect penicillin records through appropriate use of allergy services, more information and training about these services will be needed.