Boy’s Death from Sepsis Spurs Guidelines to Prevent Malpractice in Treatment

Earlier in 2012, we wrote about the sad, unnecessary death of Rory Staunton, a 12-year-old New Yorker who died of septic shock because he was misdiagnosed with a stomach bug. A good thing has come of that tragic event.

As the New York Times reported, New York will be the first state to require hospitals to look aggressively for sepsis, a life-threatening bacterial infection of the bloodstream or body tissues, in order to initiate treatment sooner. (See our backgrounder on sepsis and malpractice.)

The regulations currently being drafted demand that hospitals also must publicly report the results of their efforts to control and treat sepsis.New York’s action, which the governor hopes to implement in 2013, reflects the interest of a national panel that recommended the adoption of similar standards on a federal level.

Sepsis is a leading cause of death in hospitals. Dr. Mitchell M. Levy, author of a forthcoming paper on sepsis treatment, told The Times that sepsis is “the most common killer in intensive care units. It kills more people than breast cancer, lung cancer and stroke combined.”

Recent efforts by the Surviving Sepsis Campaign, a global community of medical professionals, have established guidelines on identifying and treating sepsis, and mortality rates have declined by 40 percent as a result. But because the early signs of sepsis-high pulse rate, fever-are similar to those of many other illnesses, it’s difficult to diagnose it conclusively in its early stage.

But the key is to catch it early, when it can be treated effectively with antibiotics and fluids. The problem is that many hospitals don’t follow the guidelines. One sepsis research program involves some 300 hospitals, but the global consortium would like to have 10,000 participants.

As The Times reports, in April 2012, Staunton died of severe septic shock after he became infected, apparently through a cut. He was treated in the emergency room of NYU Langone Medical Center, where the severity of his illness was not recognized as soon as it should have been, nor were the indications communicated effectively when they were known. Staunton was sent home with a diagnosis of stomach pain. When his laboratory results came back after he checked out, showing cause for alarm, his parents were not contacted. The publicity following his death prompted the medical community to pay attention.

New York’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav R. Shah, convened a symposium on sepsis that included presentations from Staunton’s parents. Shah said the new regulations requiring hospitals to use best practices in identifying and treating sepsis were actions taken “in honor of Rory Staunton.”

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