Why now is the time to report on sepsis

Rory Staunton

Rory Staunton. Photo courtesy of End Sepsis and the Staunton family

When 12-year-old Rory Staunton cut his arm during gym class in 2012, what should have been a simple wound became a nightmare that resulted in Rory’s death.

It started when the gym teacher covered the cut with two Band-Aids without cleaning it or sending Rory to the school nurse. It continued with each doctor Rory’s parents saw who neglected to identify his symptoms of sepsis, instead diagnosing him with a stomach virus and dehydration. 

“Every single symptom for septic shock was there,” his mother Orlaith Staunton told me. “His heart rate was running [rapidly], his temperature was really high, his blood pressure was very low, he had blue marks showing that blood was not getting to vital organs, the pain in his extremities meant that blood wasn’t getting to his toes, and [the pediatrician] didn’t pick up on it at all.” 

By the time the hospital recognized Rory had an infection that developed into sepsis, he was already well into septic shock, and he became one of the 350,000 Americans who die of sepsis every year.

“The most important thing for journalists [to do] is to make their readers aware that there is something out there called sepsis because absolutely nobody I knew knew what sepsis was when Rory died, and hospitals weren’t thinking about sepsis,” Orlaith said. 

“Journalists need to remember that sepsis is mainly a preventable death,” she added. “It can affect anyone from any background, and early recognition and treatment are the key to saving the patient. It’s a huge story that the media needs to write about.” 

Raising awareness

Now is the perfect time for local stories related to sepsis: September is Sepsis Awareness Month, and the CDC has just unveiled its Hospital Sepsis Program Core Elements. The initiative is aimed at helping hospitals develop a sepsis protocol that can improve quick identification and treatment of sepsis cases and reduce the risk of septic shock and sepsis deaths.

Anecdotes like Rory’s — and like that of Jake Tapper’s daughter Alice, who nearly died from sepsis as a child — can be effective in making big, abstract numbers about public health issues more relatable. This is particularly important for a condition like sepsis, which contributes to at least 1.7 million adult hospitalizations every year. 

While Rory’s story has been well-covered by The New York Times and the TODAY Show, his parents, who founded End Sepsis in their son’s honor, can provide reporting resources and help journalists identify families across the country who are willing to speak on the record about their experience with the condition.

On Sept. 13, End Sepsis is holding its annual national forum on sepsis that anyone can register for. The full event will be livestreamed and is a good opportunity for health journalists to get up to speed on a public health issue that affects every community. 

What is sepsis? 

Sepsis is an extreme, dysregulated immune response to an infection. Regardless of whether the initial infection results from bacteria, a virus or some other pathogen, the immune system essentially shifts some functions into overdrive while others shut down, and the resulting release of chemicals into the bloodstream causes inflammation throughout the body. If not recognized and treated, sepsis causes severe tissue damage that can lead to organs shutting down relatively quickly — within days of the initial symptoms appearing. 

Yet most cases of sepsis — about 87% — occur outside the hospital. This means that urgent care clinics and primary care practices, not just hospitals and emergency departments, need to be well-versed in the symptoms of sepsis and the populations at highest risk.

Among 5,221 hospitals, 73% had a committee to monitor and review sepsis care, with smaller hospitals being much less likely to have a program at all, according to an August CDC report. While nearly all (95%) large hospitals (more than 500 beds) had a sepsis program, barely over half (53%) of small hospitals (25 beds or fewer) had one. 

“These data highlight opportunities, particularly in smaller hospitals, to improve the care and outcomes of patients with sepsis in the United States by ensuring that all hospitals have sepsis programs with protected time for program leaders, engagement of medical specialists, and integration with antimicrobial stewardship programs,” the authors wrote. Nearly all media markets in the U.S. probably have at least one or more hospitals that lack a sepsis program. 

The CDC’s new program offers an opportunity for reporters to check in with local hospitals about a sepsis program. Some questions reporters could ask include: 

  • Does this facility have a sepsis program? 
  • If so, what does it entail? 
  • Does it include, or are there plans to add, the CDC’s recommended core elements (leadership commitment, accountability, multi-professional expertise, action, tracking, reporting, and education)? 
  • What quality improvement initiatives, if any, has the hospital tested or implemented in the past to improve sepsis identification or reduce sepsis deaths? 
  • What is the rate of sepsis deaths at this hospital?
  • What are the hospital’s plans over the next one to three years regarding its sepsis program? 

While reporting, journalists need to use the word “sepsis,” Orlaith Staunton said. She finds it frustrating when articles report on an “illness” or “infection” that was sepsis, or on a death from a “response to an infection” or “complications from an infection,” but neglect to use the proper term. 

“Just use the word. The more we use the word, then the more people will be familiar with it,” Orlaith said. “It isn’t that it was the body’s response to an infection. They became septic.”

Greater awareness can also take away some of the confusion when families hear that term from health care providers and may even help them recognize the symptoms and advocate for themselves or bring up the possibility of the diagnosis when seeing a medical professional. 

Here are two additional angles to consider when reporting on sepsis: 

  • Sepsis is the leading cause of maternal death and morbidity in a country that already has higher maternal mortality rates than any other high-income country in the world. Check out the resources on maternal sepsis at End Sepsis, Sepsis Alliance, and the World Health Organization
  • How open are hospitals in discussing sepsis with families and with publishing their statistics on sepsis? Reporters can visit local emergency departments and urgent care clinics to see what kinds of educational materials exist for patients and can ask to speak with a hospital’s infectious disease specialists or infection preventionists about their hospital’s strategies and protocols for sepsis.

When one out of every three people who die in the hospital has a diagnosis of sepsis, it’s more important than ever that health journalists provide information on this condition and what local medical facilities are doing to address it. 


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