Earlier this month, The Times reported that the UK’s sepsis death rates had been found to be ‘the worst in the western world’. The article was based upon a study by authors at Imperial College London in the UK and Mount Auburn Hospital in the USA, which looked at sepsis death rates in more than thirty countries over a thirty year period.

The study found that:

  • UK death rates fell from almost 50 out of 100,000 in 1985 to 40.3 out of 100,000 in 2015; however
  • The death rate in the UK in 2015 was significantly higher than the average taken across all the countries included in the study, being 27.1 out of 100,000.

These findings will no doubt shine a light on the UK’s efforts surrounding sepsis prevention and treatment.

According to the NHS England website, sepsis is a common and potentially life-threatening condition, which occurs when the body has a systemic response to infection. The UK Sepsis Trust has estimated that about 147,000 people are admitted to hospital with sepsis every year, about 30% of whom die. This equates to approximately 44,100 deaths per year arising from sepsis.

In 2015, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Jeremy Hunt, stated that his aim was to make tackling sepsis as important to the NHS as the so-called ‘super-bugs’; C. Difficile and MRSA. An action plan, entitled ‘Improving Outcomes for Patients with Sepsis’, was published by NHS England in December 2015.

In the action plan’s foreword, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh (the National Medical Director at NHS England) noted that sepsis had been referred to as a ‘silent killer’, because it could be extremely difficult to identify and because its symptoms could suggest other, less serious, illnesses such as flu. However, he also acknowledged that in many cases diagnosis of sepsis had been delayed and/or patients hadn’t received simple interventions which could have saved lives.

Professor Sir Keogh was frank in stating that better treatment could reduce mortality and morbidity associated with sepsis and he noted that some estimates suggest that 10,000 deaths per year from sepsis could be avoided. He also noted that the ‘Sepsis Six’ care pathway had been shown to reduce the relative risk of death by 46.6% when given to patients with severe sepsis within one hour.

The NHS England website suggests that the annual cost of sepsis in the UK, at a conservative estimate, could be as much as £7.42 billion. They do not specify how much of this, if any, relates to the costs of compensating those who have been injured (or whose loved ones have died) as a result of delays in diagnosing and treating sepsis. Russell-Cooke has acted claimants in such circumstances and the consequences for the patient can be dire.

Given that the data considered by the Imperial College London/Mount Auburn Hospital study ended in 2015, it isn’t yet clear what impact any steps taken by NHS England and NHS trusts will have had upon sepsis death rates since then. However, it seems that substantial progress will be required before the UK can be brought into line with other western countries. Until then, avoidable sepsis deaths will continue to extract a high price from the NHS, and an incalculable personal cost from patients and their families.