Up Front

Massachusetts Sepsis Consortium aims to save lives

Declaring September 13 to be Massachusetts Sepsis Awareness Day, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders announced the launch of a statewide consortium working to improve awareness and treatment of sepsis, a condition that killed roughly 6,500 people in the state in 2015.1

Sudders called it “an important day for patient safety,” while expressing confidence that the Massachusetts Sepsis Consortium, which includes nearly 30 health care and advocacy organizations, will make significant progress in stemming the devastating effects of sepsis. She spoke at an event at the State House attended by members of the Consortium, legislators, and sepsis survivors and their families, timed to coincide with World Sepsis Day. 

Sepsis, which is estimated to cause 270,000 deaths in the Unites States annually,2 is a fast-moving, overwhelming systemic response to infection, which can lead to severe tissue damage, organ failure and death. Patients who survive sepsis can be left with physical and mental disabilities, as well as the emotional effects of undergoing a serious medical crisis and lengthy treatment.

Early detection and response improve outcomes, but sepsis can be difficult to predict, diagnose and treat. As sepsis develops, the symptoms, which may include rapid breathing, elevated heart rate, mottled or pale skin tone, intense pain, fever, low blood pressure and confusion, may be mistaken for other, more benign conditions. Even when patients and family members sense and report that they feel a medical crisis is developing, clinicians may not respond quickly enough to apply life-saving treatment successfully. 

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Sudders and other sepsis survivors share their stories

The high personal cost of this complex medical condition accrues to families across the state. 

“Our mother, Emily, went into the emergency room one night with flu-like symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. She would never return home. She died from severe septic shock,” said Tina Edwards of Groveland. 

Doreen Bettencourt of Swansea developed sepsis after undergoing abdominal surgery in 2004 and still copes today with cognitive and other health challenges. “This is a place that has been difficult for me to revisit but I feel it necessary so that I can educate others on the devastation that sepsis leaves behind,” she told the State House gathering.  “My experience with sepsis changed the trajectory of my life.”

Secretary Sudders also shared a deeply personal story with those in attendance. Her older sister, Susan, died from sepsis three summers ago. 

“My sister was in health care. I’m in health care. And we did not see the signs,” she said. “We knew that she had a serious illness. But she died from septic shock.”

Raising awareness of a threat to public health

Sepsis is the costliest condition treated in U.S. hospitals, in terms both of lives lost and dollars spent, but many people have never heard of it and few understand what it is. Most sepsis patients begin to develop symptoms at home — not in the hospital — so raising public awareness about how to identify symptoms that warrant urgent response is an important way to improve sepsis outcomes. Home health aides, pediatric practices, and other health care provider groups also need the most up-to-date information to recognize and treat sepsis early. 

The list of risk factors for developing sepsis is broad and deep: being elderly or very young, having a chronic illness, using broad-spectrum antibiotics, developing an infection following surgery, and having a compromised immune system all increase the risk of sepsis. Prevention strategies include general infection control, immunizations, and education and surveillance for symptoms. 

These circumstances mean that sepsis is a serious but inconspicuous public health threat. With the Sepsis Consortium, Massachusetts brings together organizations that collectively have the expertise and motivation to address sepsis on multiple fronts. 

“Members of the Consortium have an opportunity to do more to address sepsis together than state agencies, provider organizations, payers, or advocates could do on their own,” said Barbara Fain, Executive Director of the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety, which is providing administrative, communications, and other support to the Consortium’s work.

The Consortium is currently tackling two challenges related to sepsis, with plans to do more. First tasks include working with emergency departments across the state to ensure they are prepared to diagnose and treat sepsis promptly, and developing a statewide campaign to raise awareness about sepsis.

For details about the Consortium membership and other information, visit our website.

1 Hobbs, S. (2018). Center for Health Information and Analysis. Analysis of MA Inpatient Discharge Data, FY2009-FY2016. 

2 Hall, M. J., Williams, S. N., DeFrances, C. J., & Golosinskiy, A. (2011). Inpatient Care for Septicemia or Sepsis: A Challenge for Patients and Hospitals (Vol. 62, Issue Brief). National Center for Health Statistics. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db62.pdf.


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