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Sepsis - your questions answered

Read our Q+A with Dr Carolyn Hullick, Clinical Director at the Commission and emergency physician at Hunter New England Health, who answers your questions on sepsis.

Q – What is sepsis and why is it such a major concern for Australians?

A – Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body’s response to an infection damages its own tissues and organs. Sepsis is preventable but when it does occur, it is a medical emergency that requires rapid treatment to prevent lifelong disability or death.

Sepsis can affect anyone, although it disproportionally affects the very young, the very old and a number of other high-risk groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with cancer and the immunocompromised.

Q – What does the data tell us about the epidemiology of sepsis in Australia?

A – The recent Global Burden of Disease study from 2020 estimated more than 55,000 cases of sepsis annually in Australia and around 8,700 associated deaths. These figures are substantially higher than previous estimates. Not only do sepsis patients have ongoing health complications following discharge, they are more likely than other patients to re-present to hospital in the following 12 months.

Q – What can the general community do to improve their understanding and awareness of sepsis?

A – The public should also be aware of the signs and symptoms of sepsis – fast heart rate, fever or chills, nausea and vomiting, fatigue or weakness and blotchy or discoloured skin. Not all need to be present and some symptoms may be milder than others.

There are lots of great materials online to help the community improve their knowledge of sepsis, including the Commission and state and territory health department websites, and resources available via the Australian Sepsis Network.

Q – Early detection and management of sepsis is linked to reducing morbidity and mortality. What are the most important aspects of care that need to be considered when managing sepsis patients?

A – Know the risk factors, signs and symptoms of sepsis. If sepsis is recognised in a patient, initiate rapid intravenous fluids and antibiotics within the first hour. It is also crucial to escalate care early to a senior clinician or specialty team – this may also include a medical retrieval service.

Q – How is the Commission working to help improve outcomes for sepsis patients in Australia?

A – The Commission is leading the National Sepsis Program in partnership with The George Institute for Global Health. This program of work is helping to improve outcomes for patients with sepsis in Australia. This year, the Commission is undertaking a sepsis awareness campaign, focussing on improving clinician and generally community. Clinicians, consumers and health service organisations can get involved by helping to raise awareness about sepsis. 

We are also developing a Sepsis Clinical Care Standard to provide guidance to clinicians when investigating and managing sepsis, and information to consumers about the care they can expect to receive.

Q – What is your message for World Sepsis Day 2021?

A – My key message this World Sepsis Day is “just ask: could it be sepsis?” By simply asking whether it could be sepsis, clinicians can be prompted to act quickly and provide the necessary life-saving treatment to stop the progression of sepsis.

Dr Carolyn Hullick: Clinical Director, Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

Dr Carolyn Hullick, Clinical Director at the Commission 

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    Sepsis Campaign

    The National Sepsis Awareness Campaign supports healthcare professionals to identify sepsis and act quickly to provide life-saving treatment.

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