Failure to diagnose and treat sepsis can lead to devastating consequences Image

Failure to diagnose and treat sepsis can lead to devastating consequences

Posted: 03/02/2016

A recent report by The National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death (NCEPOD) finds that thousands of people every year are suffering severe sepsis or dying from the illness because of NHS failures. 

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a condition where the body is overwhelmed and unable to fight an infection because the immune system overreacts leading to an attack on the body. It can start from something as simple as a cut or could develop after chest or urine infections. If spotted early, sepsis can be treated with antibiotics but failure to spot it can lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death. 

There are an estimated 200,000 cases of sepsis a year in the UK. Sepsis was missed by GPs in 28 out of 77 cases studied in detail and there was a delay in identifying septic shock in 63 out of 193 (33%) cases. Investigations considered essential in the diagnosis of sepsis were missed in 198 out of 506 (39%) patients. 

Last week, there were numerous reports on the public apology made by Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to the family of one year old William Mead who tragically died after the NHS failed on several occasions to spot and treat his sepsis. This was followed by the heart-breaking story of two year old Thomas Tagg who died from sepsis in the summer of last year. His father has released a warning to other parents to be aware of the early warning signs of this serious and life-threatening illness. 

Penningtons Manches has also recently been instructed to investigate a claim for a failure to diagnose and treat sepsis in an adult who suffered multi organ failure which led to gangrene and the amputation of both feet. We are investigating concerns that numerous healthcare professionals failed to spot the signs of sepsis and treat our client sooner. 

The difficulties of diagnosing sepsis

It appears that the problem lies in the fact that doctors and nurses are failing to diagnose the illness because the symptoms are mistaken for flu or other infections. They are failing to spot the “red flag” symptoms. In an adult these include: 

  • Extreme shivering
  • Muscle pain
  • Slurred speech
  • Not passing urine
  • Severe breathlessness
  • Feeling very ill
  • Mottled skin. 

In children under five, the “red flag” symptoms to look out for include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting repeatedly
  • Not passing urine for more than 12 hours
  • Feeling cold to the touch
  • Pale, mottle or blushed skin
  • Rash which does not fade
  • Fast breathing
  • Fitting or convulsing. 

If a patient has two or more of the following symptoms, a doctor should consider a diagnosis of sepsis: 

  • Temperature under 36C or above 38.3C
  • Heart-rate faster than 90 beats a minute
  • Respiratory rate of more than 20 breaths a minute
  • Increased glucose readings in non-diabetic patients
  • Altered mental state
  • Abnormal white cell count readings.

Emma Beeson, a member of the clinical negligence team who deals with cases concerning failure to diagnose sepsis, comments: “As with most illnesses, early diagnosis is critical. Doctors and nurses must be trained to look out for the early signs and symptoms so that lives can be saved. 

“NHS England published a sepsis action plan at the end of 2015 aimed at training staff to spot sepsis and it is hoped that this will go some way towards improving the treatment of sepsis and avoid the unnecessary deaths of many adults and children across the UK”. 

If you, your family or friend have been affected by sepsis and have any concerns regarding the failure to diagnose or treat it sooner, please call 0800 328 9545 and ask to speak to one of our team members who specialise in these types of cases.

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