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Clinical Systems Leadership

The Nurse's Role in Identifying Sepsis in Patients

In hospitals and other health care settings, sepsis is a growing concern. Generally, when a patient seeks treatment for an infection, a simple prescription for antibiotics will do the trick. But the high mortality rate of sepsis, along with the speed at which it develops, creates a challenge for health care providers, who not only need to know how to treat the blood infection, but need to be able to identify it quickly and accurately to improve patient outcomes.

For nurses, being familiar with the symptoms of sepsis can lead to early identification in patients, which can often make all the difference in treating this deadly infection.

The Rising Risk of Sepsis

Sepsis is dangerous condition that is triggered by an infection. The Mayo Clinic reported that it occurs when chemicals in the bloodstream that are meant to fight the infection, instead, result in inflammatory responses in the body, creating changes that can damage organs and ultimately lead to their failure.

“Your body has an army to fight infections,” Dr. Jim O’Brien, the chairman of the Sepsis Alliance, told the New York Times. “With sepsis, your body starts suffering from friendly fire.”

While it is not necessarily a new condition, it has leapt into the forefront of medical dialogue in the last couple of decades. According to a 2011 report by the CDC, the rate of hospitalization for sepsis or septicemia per 10,000 population of hospitalizations more than doubled between 2000 and 2008.

Estimating the number of deaths due to sepsis each year is difficult, because the infection is often developed alongside other conditions such as cancer, which may ultimately be the cause of death listed in records.

While the infection can be developed in a number of ways, an analysis by the CDC found that approximately 20 percent of cases of severe sepsis or septic shock in New York state began in a hospital setting. Nurses consequently not only play a role in identifying sepsis, but in preventing the infection altogether. The CDC reported that health care providers should be diligent in ensuring that proper infection control requirements are followed in the workplace and that patients receive necessary vaccinations.

The Importance of Early Identification

While time is generally of the essence in the health care field, there is particular urgency involved in treatment when a person has sepsis. Though the majority of patients with mild cases of this blood infection recover, the Mayo Clinic reported that the mortality rate for septic shock is nearly 50 percent. Consequently, early identification is critical. From newly-certified nurses to advanced practice nurses with Master of Science in Nursing degrees, every nursing professional can play a role in lowering sepsis mortality rates by identifying the condition in patients as quickly as possible.

If sepsis is suspected, the CDC reported that medical treatment should begin immediately. According to the the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of early sepsis include:
● Respiratory rate that is greater than 20 breaths per minute.
● Body temperature either below 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit or above 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
● Heart rate greater than 90 beats per minute.

Because of the nature of the infection, it is critical to catch sepsis as early as possible. But when this does not occur – or the condition progresses despite treatment – a patient can develop severe sepsis. The diagnosis is upgraded to severe sepsis when the following symptoms are present:
● Inconsistent heart pumping.
● Pain in the abdomen.
● Fallen platelet count.
● Sudden change in mental state.
● Hard time breathing.
● Significantly decreased urine production.

While sepsis cannot be predicted, the CDC reported that there are certain factors that can increase risk. A survey by the organization found that 90 percent of adults and 70 percent of children with sepsis had a health condition that may have put them at risk of developing the infection, such as a chronic disease or weakened immune system. The report additionally stated that sepsis is more common in patients with infections in their lungs, urinary tract, gut or skin. Educating these patients on the symptoms of sepsis can be especially critical in ensuring early identification.

Staying up to date on conditions such as sepsis is one reason that it is so important for nurses to continue their education. By pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing degree online at the University of Arizona, nurses are able to receive an education in the latest and greatest best practices in the field, while simultaneously continuing to pursue their career.


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