The BBC’s Panorama programme has broadcast a report that one in four NHS hospital trusts is failing patients who develop sepsis. The research found that half of patients at these hospitals are not being treated with antibiotics within recommended deadlines, putting them at risk of serious, permanent injury and of death. The BBC disclosed that 22% of eligible patients are not even being properly screened for sepsis.
Sepsis is rare, but causes over 40,000 deaths a year in the UK. It occurs when the body’s immune system recognises and fights a bacterial infection, but does so excessively, causing damage to the body itself. This can happen anywhere in the body and can be life-threatening if vital organs are affected.
Many types of bacteria have the potential to cause infection which can lead to sepsis. Anyone who is unwell can be affected, but vulnerable patients including the elderly or very young are most at risk. The early signs of sepsis are similar to symptoms associated with flu, including fever and abnormally high or low body temperature, increased heart rate and shivering. As a result, it can be difficult to distinguish sepsis from other conditions initially, but doctors have to be alert to the risk.
As sepsis progresses, it can cause extreme pain and the patient may become short of breath, experience diarrhoea and vomiting, and become delirious. By then, it is likely damage is already being caused.
Antibiotic treatment is highly effective, whether oral or intravenous, provided it is administered quickly enough; a delay of a few hours can make a huge difference to the outcome for the patient. It is estimated that more than 14,000 deaths relating to sepsis each year could be avoided with earlier antibiotic treatment.
Andrew Clayton, senior associate in Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team, comments: “Sepsis awareness is increasing, but much more needs to be done to avoid unnecessary deaths and permanent injury. Greater understanding of the symptoms and vigilance among doctors and clinical staff is vital.
“We advise in many cases where patients have suffered long-term damage because of avoidable delays in diagnosing and treating sepsis. I am currently acting for a patient in whom chicken pox developed into sepsis that neither her GP nor local A&E department identified until she went into toxic shock and multi-organ failure. She is left with considerable emotional and physical damage as a result, which could have been avoided if her clinical condition had been better assessed and antibiotics administered.
“Clinicians must listen to patients, watch for the signs and be quick to refer or administer antibiotics if sepsis is suspected. The cost to the NHS could be much reduced if patients avoided the short- and long-term effects of delayed diagnosis and as a result the medico-legal claims that may follow negligent care.”