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A Secret Killer – and Why Speed Can Kill It

It might not dominate the headlines, but sepsis is a healthcare crisis that requires immediate action.

Dr. Carl Flatley | Sepsis Alliance

It kills more people than breast cancer, prostate cancer and AIDS – combined.

Somehow I had never heard of it. Then it took my daughter’s life.

Erin was in severe pain at home following outpatient surgery. We knew something was wrong. Erin returned to the hospital, but the doctor, fearing complications, didn’t want her to take antibiotics. That was a fatal mistake.

Erin died from septic shock on April 30, 2002. We had no idea that her blood showed signs of infection.

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Sepsis kills more people than breast cancer, prostate cancer and AIDS – combined.

I later learned that sepsis is a toxic and potentially fatal reaction to a bacterial, fungal, parasitic or viral infection. We used to call it blood poisoning.

A tiny paper cut, an infected bug bite or even pneumonia can trigger sepsis. Though your immune system usually stops infections from invading your body, it can instead attack the body itself.

This is sepsis. If not caught early, sepsis can quickly progress to septic shock – with a 30 to 50 percent death rate.

A survey conducted for Sepsis Alliance, a patient-advocacy group I founded, shows that just a slight majority of Americans have even heard of sepsis.

What’s so scary about sepsis is that it can start as a fever, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath or pain. We frequently push aside these everyday symptoms.

This is why I never imagined Erin was in life-threatening trouble. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Other families shouldn’t have to experience the pain I felt on that April day – and every day since.

To make real progress in combating sepsis, we must do two things: raise awareness and work faster.

Get smart fast

In framing this problem, it’s important to know the following:

  • A new case of sepsis occurs every few seconds.
  • Sepsis is the leading cause of hospital deaths.
  • Sepsis is an equal opportunity killer, taking the young and healthy, as well as the old and sick.

Most cases of sepsis start in the community setting, before people are hospitalized, studies show. Yet fewer than half of all U.S. hospitals even have evidenced-based sepsis protocols in place.

This is where the need for speed, both from logistics providers like UPS and groups like Sepsis Alliance, converge.

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To make real progress in combating sepsis, we must do two things: raise awareness and work faster.

For Sepsis Alliance, it’s about increasing awareness in communities around the world. For UPS, it’s about moving the supplies that will ultimately save lives – and doing so faster than ever before.

Transport plays a critical role in reducing the time between testing for sepsis, analyzing the results and treating the condition.

Not all clinical labs have the same ability to deliver the results needed to reduce sepsis morbidity and mortality rates.

One under-appreciated fact is that significant delays between collection of blood cultures and initiation of incubation will prolong detection times. These delays can occur both at the patient’s bedside and in the laboratory.

We know that the chances of surviving severe sepsis drop 8 percent for every hour it’s not treated. We can stop sepsis by preventing infections of all kinds or treating them quickly.

At the heart of healthcare

Laboratory tests are a critical part of the $2.7 trillion U.S. healthcare market. When your doctor draws blood, tissue or other specimens, those tests will determine how about 70 percent of healthcare dollars are spent. That’s equivalent to 13 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

And that amount is set to increase, with expanded healthcare coverage, a focus on preventative care, advances in testing technology and the “silver tsunami” of our aging baby boomer generation.

In other words, this is an industry where a 99-percent-effective rate is not good enough.

A missed pick-up means a specimen could sit over the weekend and lose viability for testing. This is a life-or-death issue.

Simply improving transport time for sepsis testing would reduce death rates now eclipsing 250,000 annually in the United States alone.

To achieve improved efficiency and increased value, labs must look at logistics as a strategic lever in their business model.

What you can do

For logistics to play its part, however, we must boost awareness. If you don’t know about sepsis, you probably won’t get tested.

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Once you know the truth about sepsis, it’s impossible to look away.

You should seek medical help if you recently had an invasive procedure (surgery, intravenous line, urinary catheter, dental work, etc.), or sustained a wound that broke the skin – and you have any signs or symptoms of infection or sepsis.

Initial treatment for sepsis is intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Depending on severity, treatment in an intensive care unit may include many more types of medications, such as vasopressors, which raise blood pressure, and even life support, such as ventilators, which help patients breathe. Surgery might be necessary to eliminate or control the infection.

Sepsis can be prevented in most cases by preventing infections or treating them promptly. Remember to:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Look for signs of skin breakdown and infection.
  • See your healthcare professional about any infections, ask if it could be sepsis and follow treatment plans as prescribed.
  • Stay current on vaccines.

Hitting new benchmarks

At Sepsis Alliance, we have a clear vision of the path ahead in the fight against sepsis. Our goals include:

  • Raising sepsis awareness to 60 percent by the end of this year, to 75 percent by 2020 and to 95 percent by 2025.
  • Ensuring that every health worker has access to sepsis training by 2018.
  • Confirming hospitals have a sepsis protocol – 50 percent by 2018, 90 percent by 2020.
  • Reducing sepsis mortality by half by 2020.

We must remember that these aren’t just statistics. These are people. These are people like my daughter, Erin, who deserved better. Right now, sepsis is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

I’m confident we’re on the verge of a real breakthrough, thanks to improved logistics, streamlined testing and a better collective awareness of unmet medical need.

Once you know the truth about sepsis, it’s impossible to look away. Let’s help more people see this reality for themselves – before it’s too late. goldbrown2

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Dr. Carl Flatley is founder of Sepsis Alliance. His mission is to make sepsis as well known as cancer, diabetes and other illnesses, which would save tens of thousands of lives around the world.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.

2 Comments

  1. Sheila Brown

    Thank You. This was the cause of my Mom’s death and I have shared her story often, but I had no idea the impact sepsis has had on our mortality rates. I will make this a part of my Safety Share with the work groups I encounter to raise awareness. Bless you for sharing your daughter’s story and for working to eradicate this painful, but often preventable cause of death. I stand with you.

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