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Death of mother-of-six highlights tragic consequences of delays in sepsis diagnosis

Posted: 26/04/2018

The BBC has reported on the death of a 33 year old mother following delays in treating her rare form of sepsis. She passed away just 72 hours after she presented to the A&E department at Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley.

Natalie Billingham, who died in March 2018, was experiencing pain in her foot, a purple patch on her ankle and flu-like symptoms when she arrived at the hospital. Her family claim that the patch on her ankle was not examined and there were delays in prescribing her with antibiotics. Her condition deteriorated quickly and, within three days of admission, Mrs Billingham died from necrotising fasciitis.

Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust is running an investigation into Mrs Billingham’s death and has announced that a member of staff has been suspended.

Sepsis can be difficult to diagnose as some of the main symptoms of this severe illness can be confused with those of less serious conditions such as flu or even dehydration. Early symptoms to look out for can include some or all of the following:

  • fever;
  • hypothermia (lower than normal body temperature);
  • low heart rate;
  • fast breathing;
  • altered mental state such as confusion or delirium; and
  • swelling.

Spotting these symptoms early can result in life-saving antibiotic treatment, but because sepsis can lead to death within a very short time frame, it is vital that medical professionals act quickly, as the very sad case of Mrs Billingham demonstrates.

Some progress is being made in diagnosing sepsis as quickly as possible, for example through new state of the art diagnostic equipment at Basingstoke Hospital in Hampshire. The hospital is the first in the UK to trial the Accelerate PhenoTest Kit which allows staff to identify sepsis at an earlier stage and prevents the need for more invasive testing to determine the diagnosis. The kit has been used in approximately 170 cases so far and is showing positive results.

The clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP has dealt with a number of cases where a failure to diagnose or treat sepsis has caused families to lose their loved ones or has resulted in patients ending up with life-changing injuries, including amputations. Senior associate Emma Beeson said: “This development is welcome news. I have worked with families who have lost close relatives to this disease and it is distressing for them to learn that sepsis could have been treated if it had been diagnosed sooner.

“What is frightening is that sepsis can kill in just a matter of hours after a patient notices his or her symptoms. I was saddened to hear of the circumstances of Natalie Billingham’s death  and hope that both medical professionals and the general public can learn from these tragic events.”

For further information on the developments at Basingstoke Hospital, please click here.

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