A Healthcare Risk Manager Shares Her Advice after Personally Surviving Sepsis

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog

Guest Author: Pamela L. Popp MA JD DFASHRM CPHRM AIM DSA
Executive Vice President/Chief Risk Officer
Western Litigation

In January of 2008, I joined the ranks of sepsis survivors.  I too was placed on a ventilator, given months of antibiotic and antifungal treatments, suffered from memory loss and was financially devastated by the medical bills.  So what makes my story different?  The difference is that I have spent my career in healthcare risk management – the industry that works to prevent unsafe patient events, advocates for apology and disclosure when something does occur, and tries to find resolutions for patients and families that allow them to continue their lives.

And then I had my sepsis experience.  I lost days of my life, lost years of memories, had to reteach myself basic skills and yet could find no one who understood my experience.  So I turned to Sepsis Alliance.  There I found information, survivor stories and a shared passion to find ways to prevent sepsis.  So I decided to take the message back to the audience that I knew best:  healthcare risk managers.

So, where should a risk manager start to implement a sepsis initiative?  To achieve success in any risk endeavor, there needs to be an understanding of the global issue, then an investigation into the specific facility’s experience.

At a minimum, a sepsis initiative should include:

  1. Education for all providers and staff on symptom recognition;
  2. Policies reflecting the clinical guidelines on immediate treatment;
  3. Sepsis response ‘crash carts’ with resources needed to start treatment;
  4. Facility-wide signage outlining the symptoms for ease of recognition by patient families and friends;
  5. Respect for the word – if someone says it, it needs to be considered;
  6. Community education to encourage early recognition and seeking prompt medical attention from the ER where treatment can begin; and
  7. Communicate with EMS personnel on symptoms as well as signs of decline during transport and
  8. “Say sepsis.  Then rule it out.”

The key to awareness is an assortment of visual triggers for providers, staff and patients/families to remember the signs, and to be on alert for patient deterioration.  The more public and repetitive the information, the greater the chance that sepsis will be suspected and recognized.

The next step is to communicate to senior management the impact of the initiative in order to gain their support of the training and orientation efforts.  The best way to facilitate this communication is to illustrate a return on investment (ROI) for the initiative in terms of reduced patient care costs as well as a focus on enhanced patient safety.

The final step is to take the message to the community through health fairs or presentations to key community organizations.  Sepsis mortality rates decline when the patient goes to the ER at the first signs of sepsis.  Educating the community members on the need for early recognition and seeking prompt medical attention can have a significant impact on sepsis rates in the community.  Facilitating support groups for sepsis survivors can also have a positive impact on healing.

Sepsis deserves attention.  It is our obligation to bring more knowledge and focus on this preventable, but deadly, condition.

Posted on by CDC's Safe Healthcare Blog

11 comments on “A Healthcare Risk Manager Shares Her Advice after Personally Surviving Sepsis”

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    Thanks for your comment. Confusion is a symptom of sepsis. Because there is no single signs or symptoms of sepsis, rather, a combination of symptoms, sepsis is often hard to recognize. The sepsis Q&A includes information about sepsis that you may be interested in: http://www.cdc.gov/sepsis/basic/qa.html

    Thanks for sharing and all you do. As a sepsis survivor, 13 years ago, I looked around for someone who was making awareness a reality and years later, found Sepsis Alliance. I have been blessed to have life and want to be as pro active as possible in the cause. Your points are the best summary of any I have seen, and your perspective is most important. As I make presentations, as a non-medical person, all you have to do is identify yourself as a sepsis survivor and you get instant credit which in your case is huge. Keep it up and God bless you.

    I have been shocked at how many friends and acquaintances who are in the medical field were unaware of some of the signs and symptoms of sepsis– and how important speed of response is. Although my husband appeared healthy and fit, he was taking a biologic medication (Enbrel), which severely compromised his immune system. This should have served as a red flag to the ER staff during his first visit. Blood testing might have identified the presence of infection. He could have been advised to discontinue use of the medication until the source of his pain was identified. Fortunately on his second visit to the ER, sepsis assessment was initiated quickly and it was diagnosed. Treatment began immediately. After being airlifted 200 miles to one of the country’s top medical facilities, 4 surgeries, 70 inpatient days, rehab at all levels (inpatient, home health, outpatient), and 18 months, he is still on daily antibiotics and many new medications to treat conditions that developed as a result of his sepsis but alive and nearly back to his previous level of functioning.
    Making the public and medical people aware of the symptoms of sepsis and the urgency of early identification and treatment is critical.

    I appreciate this information on Sepsis. In my days as a nursing student I remember and will never forget a case about a young girl. She was in for a simple infection and the next day she was confused and acting abnormal for her. The knowledgeable staff said she was acting up and told her to stop it. I knew that this behavior was abnormal. The end of the story was tragic. She died because no one believed that her confusion was part of a big issue, SEPSIS.

    In March 2013, through an unclean medical procedure, I contracted Sepsis MRSA. I was not expected to survive. I was in-fluxed with every known antibiotic, I coded three times, and was in cardiac arrest, renal failure and had pneumonia. During the time of my infection, gallium scans showed that the MRSA was up and down my spine. However, through the introduction of an experimental drug that was being developed for skin infections, I am writing this today. The drug was given intravenously for several weeks,

    The good news was that it killed the MRSA, the bad news was that it caused my skin to pustulate and it was like having 2nd to 3rd degree burns over my entire body. The affect was that I lost all my skin, nails and hair.

    After six months I left the hospital. I could not walk or stand and had lost 90 pounds. Basically I had lost all of my supportive muscle. For over a month I had in-home therapy. I then spent six months in aqua therapy, and continue to work out three times a week. I am able to walk and stand, However, I am limited by severe back pain and fatigue.

    My dad is potentially on his deathbed right now with sepsis that was not identified until it was critical by the nursing home staff taking care of him. We have been told that it is hopeless,; it remains to be seen. My hope is that your initiative reaches every care facility in the country so our loved ones receive timely care that can preserve their lives.

    Dear Dr. Popp, Thank you for sharing your personal account of what it was like to be a victim of sepsis, and how it affected your life. Maybe as important is the energy you have put into educating others about the risks and treatment protocols that have to be used to save a sepsis patient’s life.
    I am a Graduate student at the University of Alabama, and have been following the issues of Healthcare Associated Infections (HAIs). This has lead me to learning more about the occurrence of sepsis as well as the crisis we are in regarding antibiotics (overuse, needless use, and insufficient spectrum of antibiotics to kill all pathogens, etc.).
    Best regards,
    Terry Heverly

    Hi Pamela,
    I am glad you survived sepsis and you are able to share your experience with the rest of the world. Indeed, sepsis does deserve attention. As the sepsis coordinator at my hospital, l once did a survey of the community to assess their knowledge on sepsis. I was shocked at the results of my survey. Over 50% of my sample population had never heard the word “sepsis” and the percentage of those who knew about sepsis had no clear understanding about the signs and symptoms to watch out for nor the deadly complication and mortality that could result from sepsis. It is truly our obligation in healthcare to educate everyone about sepsis and thanks to the CDC and other organizations out there that have highlighted this life-threatening condition called Sepsis.

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Page last reviewed: November 18, 2016
Page last updated: November 18, 2016