Sepsis taking too many lives due to hospital failings – UK ombudsman

Despite progress, UK hospitals continue to make the same mistakes on sepsis, the ombudsman said.


Sepsis is continuing to kill too many people due to hospital failings, according to a new report from the UK’s health ombudsman.

The condition occurs when the body’s immune system has an extreme response to an infection and injures its own tissues and organs. This can lead to shock, multiple organ failure, and death if not treated quickly, according to the UK Sepsis Trust.

An estimated 11 million people died worldwide due to sepsis in 2017, accounting for almost 20 per cent of global deaths.

The new UK ombudsman report released on Wednesday and entitled “Spotlight on sepsis: your stories, your rights” shows that major improvements are needed to avoid more fatalities.

“I’ve heard some harrowing stories about sepsis through our investigations, and it frustrates and saddens me that the same mistakes we highlighted ten years ago are still occurring. It is clear that lessons are not being learned,” said the UK’s health service ombudsman Rob Behrens in a statement.

“The NHS needs to listen to patients and their families when they raise concerns. It needs to be sepsis-aware. We know early detection and treatment is crucial”.

‘We were devastated’

One patient complaint to the ombudsman came from a woman named Sue whose mother Kath died in 2017 at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals Trust after falling while in hospital.

Kath had been diagnosed with pneumonia, developed other lung problems, and died two weeks later of cardiac arrest after falling.

The ombudsman investigation found that she had signs of sepsis and the Trust “missed opportunities to identify and treat it”.

Sepsis likely caused her health to deteriorate and was the reason she fell, the ombudsman added.

“We were devastated when Mum died,” said Sue in a statement.

“When the Ombudsman confirmed that her death was avoidable, it felt like we were grieving all over again,” she added.

“The hospital staff should have recognised the signs of sepsis and acted accordingly. If they had done, Mum would probably still be with us now”.

Another case not highlighted in the report but which has been subject to significant media attention in the UK is that of 13-year-old Martha Mills, who died of severe sepsis after a cycling accident.

Her family campaigned for the introduction of “Martha’s rule” to allow parents to get a second medical opinion if their concerns are ignored by health workers.

Same failings repeated

Behrens said that hospital failings regarding sepsis persist despite some improvements since a report 10 years ago highlighted the deaths of NHS patients due to delays in diagnosing and treating sepsis.

Since that report, there have been guidelines to help NHS staff recognise and treat sepsis and national campaigns to increase awareness of symptoms.

But they said that despite some improvements, there are still complaints that patients died of sepsis because it wasn’t identified or treated right away.


The ombudsman cited multiple cases where delays in providing antibiotics, diagnosing signs of sepsis or poor discharge and follow-up led to patient death.

According to the UK Sepsis Trust, symptoms of sepsis in adults include “slurred speech or confusion, extreme shivering or muscle pain, passing no urine (in a day), severe breathlessness, [feeling] like you’re going to die, [and] skin mottled or discoloured”.

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