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A Better Way to Detect Sepsis

September 26, 2016

Every year, more than 1 million Americans get sepsis, a condition that occurs when the body has an inflammatory response to a serious infection.

Of those who get sepsis every year, up to 50 percent will die from it, according to government data. With these figures, there’s even more urgency within the medical community to identify sepsis and treat it. Recent research — and recent efforts here in Central Florida — are paving the way for better detection.

New Report Shows the Benefit of Quick Action

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report that showed that seven out of 10 patients with sepsis had recently been to a health care provider or had a chronic condition that required ongoing medical care, meaning doctors had an opportunity to spot the signs and symptoms of sepsis before the condition progressed.

The CDC says that much of the prevention efforts have been focused on reducing the occurrence of sepsis in hospitals, particularly in intensive care units, but it found that 80 percent of cases occurred outside of hospitals.

The CDC says that doctors who regularly see patients with chronic conditions should watch out for the signs of sepsis, especially if the patient comes in with an infection. Doctors also can educate a patient’s family about how to recognize that an infection may be worsening, how to care for a wound or an infection that may be a precursor to sepsis and how to recognize when it’s time to seek immediate medical attention.

Understanding the symptoms of sepsis is critical to this effort. Sepsis typically occurs after a bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic infection and is most common in people who’ve had a prior surgery or those with chronic disease or weakened immune systems, such as the elderly and infants. Symptoms of sepsis include fever, chills, rapid heartbeat, flushed skin, abnormal blood pressure and reduced urination.

New Sepsis Alert System

In addition to educating a patient’s family, as doctors we can put mechanisms in place to prevent sepsis or at least to get a patient on an antibiotic regimen as soon as possible. It’s why we recently partnered with Orange County EMS to implement a new sepsis alert system.

There’s standard emergency protocol when it comes to treating patients who may have a stroke or heart attack, but nothing of the sort exist for sepsis even though it has a higher fatality rate.

With sepsis, the standard protocol has been to do a blood test if we suspect the condition, but with the new alert system EMS can do a simple breath test in the ambulance. On the way to the hospital, EMS workers can look for symptoms of sepsis and monitor the level of exhaled CO2 from the patient, a key indicator of this condition.

If all of the signs and symptoms are present, EMS will begin to give the patient fluids, notify the hospital that there is a sepsis alert and that the patient requires immediate medical attention. Doctors and medical staff then will begin drawing the patient’s blood as soon as he or she arrives. This quick action can be lifesaving because severe sepsis can lead to organ failure. The alert system, the first of its kind in the country, could be the difference between life, death or serious complications for many patients.

But this system is only part of the solution. I’d urge anyone who has a chronic condition or infection to pay close attention to how you feel. Do you have a fever? Is your heartbeat irregular or are you having trouble urinating? Is your skin flushed? If so, it’s better that you go the emergency room or call 9-11 rather than wait for these symptoms to subside. It could make all the difference for your prognosis.