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Be alive to sepsis to prevent deaths

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance urging doctors and nurses to be more alive to the possibility of patients having sepsis, in an attempt to avoid up to 13,000 preventable deaths each year.

The guidance comes after increasing numbers of cases being reported where patients have died because signs of sepsis have been missed. Notoriously difficulty to diagnose, sepsis is where the body’s immune system overreacts when fighting an infection and turns on itself, attacking organs and other functions which can very quickly lead to death. But its symptoms, rapid breathing and feeling generally unwell and lethargic, can easily be mistaken for less life-threatening conditions such as flu. If this happens, then the rapid antibiotic and other treatment used for sepsis can be delayed or not given at all.

Could be this be sepsis?

The new guidance from NICE requires GPs, emergency services and hospital staff to ask “Could this be sepsis?” when any patient presents with an infection or symptoms associated with it. Only after ruling sepsis out should a patient be treated for possible other causes. Under the guidance, patients who are suspected to have sepsis should be reviewed by a senior doctor immediately and given a high dose of antibiotics within an hour.

This sets a clear strategy for dealing with sepsis which NHS and other hospitals will be expected to implement and follow. Any failures to comply with these requirements could see the hospital being held liable for any injury that arises out of the failure to treat in time. Clarke Willmott’s clinical negligence solicitors are regularly instructed in sepsis cases; seeing time and time again how easily this serious condition can be missed, despite its prevalence.

Of course, whilst the new guidelines may offer the best line of treatment for patients, whether or not this can be implemented in the modern NHS remains to be seen. Often, the reason why sepsis is missed is due to lack of senior staff to review patients in good time or because the hospitals processes and procedures fail at identifying the potential for sepsis. Changes in protocol will likely be required if hospitals are to engage with this new guidance.

Professor Mark Baker of NICE has said

[sepsis] requires a depth of thought and experience and a way of examining patients which isn’t always there – particularly because of time pressures and partly because we have got used to implementing guidelines without thinking”.

Therefore hospitals now face the challenge of having enough senior staff available at any given time to see and monitor sepsis patients in accordance with the guidance.

The NHS has useful advice for patients about the possible symptoms of sepsis. Anyone who is worried about early stages of sepsis should call their GP or 111 immediately for advice. If sepsis is suspected, patients should be urgently transferred to hospital, by ambulance if necessary, for immediate assessment. Anyone worried about severe sepsis or septic shock should call 999 without delay.

If you or anyone you know has suffered harm as a result of a failure or delay to treat sepsis and would like to discuss this with our specialist lawyers, call us on 0880 316 8892.