HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It’s a leading cause of death in U.S. hospitals.
Now doctors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working to improve their ability to diagnose sepsis, and a Midstate hospital chain is showing early success.
“We really have never seen the volume of sepsis that we’re seeing these days,” said Dr. Tom Stoner, medical director at PinnacleHealth’s Community General Osteopathic Hospital in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County.
He should know; Stoner has worked in sepsis care for close to two decades. The bump in diagnoses, he said, is due in part to defining what exactly the syndrome entails.
“Oftentimes patients don’t realize how sick they are,” he said.
That’s partly because sepsis can be tough to diagnose, with common symptoms like fever, stomach pain, and shortness of breath. It presents in a number of different combinations, so there’s no real smoking gun that indicates sepsis.
It happens when blood gets infected; sepsis is our immune system’s overreaction to that infection.
Most cases — about 80 percent — happen outside the hospital. It can start with something as simple as a cut or scratch that gets infected.
And the number of cases is difficult to pin down. Stoner pegged the total at about 1.6 million cases in the country but added that number could be two or three times higher.
He knows what it’s like firsthand.
“My youngest son, Aaron, became septic” two years ago, he said. “Developed pneumonia in both lungs, and was in the hospital for almost two weeks and out of school for six.”
It started with what the family thought was a minor illness. Aaron felt sick for a couple days, then got better, his dad said.
“And the following day he couldn’t breathe, he required oxygen,” Stoner said. “We had to rush him to the emergency department.”
At one point, he lost his oxygen supply, Stoner said, “and he looked at me and said, ‘Dad, I think I’m going to die.'”
He’s doing fine now, but that phrase or something like it can also be a symptom, Stoner said. And doctors are finding it’s critical to start treatment as early as possible.
“There’s an 8 percent risk of death for every hour that a patient is not treated in septic shock,” he said. About one-in-three patients with sepsis or septic shock dies.
PinnacleHealth is fighting that with new protocols, like starting antibiotics more quickly and getting nurses and EMTs involved in the early diagnosis process.
CDC researchers are also pushing a campaign to raise awareness about sepsis. If the symptoms fit, “think sepsis,” the agency warns online.
“When you’re dealing in that critical hour with life and death,” Stoner said, “you need to act quick.”
In the last year, Stoner said they’ve reduced death from sepsis by 40 percent company-wide; that’s about 8 to 12 more people per month who survive.
Stoner and groups like the CDC hope more awareness and faster response drop the mortality rate even more.
“Everyone is on an equal page when it comes to stroke, heart attack,” Stoner said, “and we want sepsis to be on that same page.”
More information on symptoms and how to prevent sepsis is available here on the CDC’s website.