Britain's Sepsis Crisis

14th September 2017

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The 13 September is World Sepsis Day, established to raise awareness of the symptoms of this potentially deadly condition and to avoid unnecessary deaths.

Monday’s BBC Panorama programme “Britain’s Sepsis Crisis” made pretty disturbing viewing, highlighting as it did the treatment of sepsis within the NHS in England.

The programme tracked the experience of investigative journalist Alistair Jackson and the treatment his mother had received at Queen’s Hospital, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire in 2015. She was admitted due to a urinary tract infection and within 48 hours, she had died. Her symptoms and treatment were reviewed by an independent expert on sepsis who concluded that there had been a delay in treating the sepsis with appropriate antibiotics.

This tragic story provided the background to a review of the research that has been undertaken on how the NHS in England is dealing with the treatment of sepsis.

So what is sepsis?

Sepsis is a rare but potentially life-threatening illness caused by the body’s response to an infection. It develops when chemicals released by the immune system into the bloodstream to fight an infection cause inflammation throughout the entire body instead. Severe cases of sepsis can lead to septic shock, which is a medical emergency.

Typical or common infections which can cause sepsis are:

  • Urine infections
  • Appendicitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Peritonitis
  • Cellulitis
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis
  • Endocarditis
  • Osteomyelitis

How is the NHS dealing with sepsis?

Not well – new figures reveal that 1 in 4 NHS hospital trusts in England is failing to give antibiotics to half their patients with sepsis within the recommended time.

Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who was interviewed in the Panorama programme said:

“There are preventable deaths happening but we are bringing them down and I think that the picture is much improved from 2 years ago but there is a long way to go. Safety is at the top of the NHS in-tray… and sepsis is if you like a litmus test as to whether we are getting there. I would say that what it shows is that we are making progress but there is a lot more work to do”.

Figures shown to the programme revealed that there were 14,000 preventable deaths every year in the UK. 37% of patients that need antibiotics for sepsis are not getting them within 1 hour and 14 hospital trusts are only screening 1 in every 2 people with signs of sepsis. There is also a wide disparity between NHS Trusts in England for screening for suspected sepsis, for example the figure for Liverpool Heart & Chest Foundation NHS Trust was 8% but Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust had reported 49%.

Although the Health Secretary is attempting to reassure the public that progress is being made, the reality it seems to me is that the figures are worrying and the whole sepsis issue and its treatment highly concerning.

The NHS is barely out of the headlines these days, be it issues over Junior Doctors’ pay and working conditions or a full enquiry such as was seen in Mid-Staffordshire so the sepsis problem is another serious public issue that needs to be addressed. What is not clear is what the reasons are for the “preventable deaths” that Jeremy Hunt talked of? Inevitable questions that arise are whether the problem is based around resources or training or both. I have been involved in medical litigation for the past 25 years, and without scaremongering, the issue surrounding the appropriate treatment or otherwise for sepsis could well in my judgment become a significant new frontier in medical negligence litigation in the UK. It is pretty clear to me that many of the NHS Trusts in England are affected by the issue and unless this is tackled in a timely and focussed way, then what the programme demonstrated is that this may well be the tip of the iceberg. If so, then claims for the injury and losses including death caused by delay in the treatment of sepsis are unlikely to diminish and if anything, increase.

If you or a family member have been affected by a delay or failure to diagnose or treat sepsis, you may be entitled to compensation. For further information, please contact a member of the Clinical Negligence team.




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Spencer Collier


Partner, Cardiff

+44(0)29 2039 1704