According to figures from the UK Sepsis Trust, somebody dies of sepsis every hour in the UK. In 20% to 30% of these cases, sepsis is acquired in a hospital. At Davis Blank Furniss, we have acted on behalf of a number of families of patients who have died from sepsis in hospital.

Sepsis is not a medical condition itself, but the body’s overreaction to an existing infection. Instead of the immune system attacking the infection, it attacks the body’s own organs and tissues. If spotted early, it can be easily treated with antibiotics – but if left, it can result in organ failure and death.

Hospital patients are already more susceptible to infection, and despite the valiant efforts of medical staff to keep their surroundings sterile, infections can easily jump from one ill patient to the next. In theory, hospitals should be the best place for such an infection to be treated. However, it is often missed. Sepsis can be difficult to spot because it presents in a similar way to other illnesses, such as flu or a chest infection. Symptoms include breathlessness, shivering and mottled skin, as well as confusion and a feeling of intense illness. Further, its symptoms vary between adults and children, and some patients, particularly the elderly, may not present any obvious symptoms at all. Clinical alertness is therefore of the utmost importance, but with medical staff increasingly busy, signs often go missed, and a diagnosis of sepsis can be left too late.

To combat this, the UK Sepsis Trust have developed the ‘Sepsis Six’: a series of six tests and indicators that medical professionals can carry out to reduce the chance of mortality where a patient is diagnosed with sepsis. These include giving oxygen and IV fluids, and taking blood cultures. The UK Sepsis Trust estimates that the Sepsis Six doubles the chance of a patient’s survival if delivered within the first hour. This can work in tandem with NEWS2, the second version of the National Early Warning Score. This measures six physiological parameters when a patient is in hospital, including temperature, blood pressure and oxygen saturation, and gives an early indication of deterioration.

However, the rates of sepsis deaths in UK hospitals are still alarmingly high. A blood culture test can take up to 72 hours to produce a result, by which point a patient may have deteriorated. Fortunately, a significant amount of research is being done into developing sepsis tests that deliver quicker results.

In 2019, researchers at the University of Strathclyde announced that they had developed a new, low-cost rapid test that could detect sepsis in under three minutes. The test works by detecting whether a protein biomarker of sepsis is present in the patient’s blood. We were also interested to hear of a new 10-minute test for sepsis that is in the final stages of clinical trials in the US. It has been developed by San Francisco-based medtech start-up Cytovale and measures the properties of the patient’s white blood cells, which differ between patients with and without sepsis. The test is being considered for commercial sale in the US when trials are concluded.

It will be interesting to see whether either of these tests become available to the NHS. A fast-acting test would certainly benefit both patient and clinician in ensuring early diagnosis and effective treatment of sepsis.

If you have suffered negligent medical treatment, our dedicated team of medical negligence lawyers can help you get the compensation that you deserve. Call our offices on 0161 832 3304 (Manchester) or 01457 869 606 (Glossop), or email us on PIClinicalNegligence@dbf-law.co.uk.

*This article was co-authored by Sarah Taylor who is a paralegal in the Personal Injury team.

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