Staff shortages and hospital overcrowding have contributed to an apparent increase in sepsis death by more than a third in two years, according to a UK safety expert.
Data analysis by Professor Brian Jarman, director of the Dr Foster research unit at Imperial College London, shows that from 2014-15, the number of recorded deaths by sepsis was 11,328.
By 2016-17 there was a 38.8% increase, with 15,722 deaths in hospital or within 30 days of discharge, according to Professor Jarman.
“These new data demonstrate a worrying trend towards an increase in incidents of sepsis”
The NHS classifies sepsis as a rare but serious complication of an infection, which can lead to multiple organ failure if not quickly treated.
Sometimes wrongly classified as blood poisoning, sepsis can result as an infection in any part of your body, including pneumonia, influenza, and urinary tract-infections.
Early signs of sepsis are high or low body temperature, chills, shivering, a fast heartbeat, and fast breathing.
In 2015, a report indicated that 70% of sepsis cases in England arose in the community, but a large proportion of the public did not recognise the symptoms, which could lead to a delay in treatment.
“The biggest thing that’s important seems to be the number of staff”
The NHS England action plan noted that the range of health and care professionals who will come into contact with patients with suspected sepsis was “huge”.
“Though many are aware of and trained in responding to sepsis, some are not, and there is significant variation in the training provided to different professional groups,” warned the report.
It highlighted that sepsis was claiming more lives than lung cancer – the second highest cause of death after cardiovascular disease.
Speaking today, Professor Jarman said: “The biggest thing that’s important seems to be the number of staff – doctors per bed.
“One of the important things is the overcrowding of hospitals,” he said. “The level of overcrowding shouldn’t be more than 85% [bed occupancy], and it’s been going over 90% in recent years.”
“The treatment for sepsis, if it’s caught early enough, involves very basic interventions – looking for the source of the infection, giving antibiotics,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Dr Ron Daniels
UK Sepsis Trust chief executive Dr Ron Daniels said: “Whilst the estimated numbers of people dying are conservative, we agree that the reported incidents of sepsis is rising by between 10-13% every year.
He added: “This is part due to improvements in the way we record and code cases of sepsis but this doesn’t fully explain the increase.”
“It’s likely that our ageing population, antibiotics resistance, and ever-increasing pressures on the NHS also carry some responsibility,” he said.
Dr Daniels said that more “properly collected prospective data” was needed to truly understand the “magnitude of the problem”.