Sepsis causes more U.S. deaths each year than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined.

Yet, more people are probably aware October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month than are aware September is Sepsis Awareness Month. That’s understandable: From the pink worn during October NFL football games to pink cans of soup at the grocery store, it’s next to impossible to miss Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

We need to elevate sepsis awareness to the same level. Sepsis affects more than a million Americans each year, and 28 percent to 50 percent of those with sepsis die. In 2011, the Sepsis Alliance recognized the need for increased awareness among the public and providers of this deadly infliction, and has helped organize September as Sepsis Awareness Month every year since.

While many may still be unfamiliar with sepsis, awareness is better than it once was, and health care providers, including essential hospitals, are making great strides in reducing sepsis mortality. But we still have a ways to go.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is an overwhelming immune response to an infection, which can be can be caused by one of many different types of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It can start from almost anywhere, including the lungs, urinary tract, and skin.

Infection-triggered, widespread inflammation causes blood clots and leaky blood vessels, which can deprive organs of nutrients and oxygen. Once organs begin failing, a patient is in a profound septic shock.

While anyone can get sepsis, those with weakened immune systems, such as burn and trauma patients, are most vulnerable. Children, infants, and the elderly are also vulnerable, due to weak immune systems. Because sepsis can arise unpredictably and progress rapidly, early diagnosis and timely treatment are both difficult and vital for survival.

Uneven National Progress on Reducing Sepsis

According to the latest available national data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, postoperative sepsis per 1,000 elective surgery admissions in patients older than 18 increased from 2008 to 2011 before finally falling in 2012. The 16 percent improvement from 2011 to 2012 provides a hopeful sign of progress.

But that progress has been inconsistent. The rate of sepsis among Medicaid patients remains stubbornly high, for example. While the specific causes of the variations are unknown, we hope to use the available data to make targeted and widespread improvements in reducing sepsis. This will be especially important as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services starts mandatory reporting of the sepsis management bundle in October as part of inpatient quality reporting.

Members Reduce Sepsis Among Vulnerable Populations

Members of America’s Essential Hospitals are doing their part in the fight against sepsis. Here are a few good examples:

  • San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center is a publicly operated level I trauma center serving California’s Bay Area. In 2014, it earned California Health Care Safety Net Institute’s top quality honor for reducing sepsis mortality by 52 percent and increasing bundle compliance by 170 percent.
  • Kern Medical Center, in Bakersfield, CA, has seen a 50 percent decrease in cases of severe sepsis and sepsis shock due to early intervention. To educate staff and promote awareness of sepsis, the hospital made a creative parody, titled SEPSY BACK.
  • Parkland Hospital, in Dallas, operates a level I trauma and burn center. Using predictive analytics, Parkland in 2014 reduced sepsis mortality by 17.4 percent, which extrapolates to 21 lives saved.

You can learn more about our members’ work to reduce sepsis and save lives during our Wednesday, Sept 2, webinar, at 2 pm EDT. In addition to hearing first-hand how Kern Medical Center and Ventura County Medical Center, in Ventura, CA, have reduced sepsis, you’ll also hear from the co-founders of The Rory Staunton Foundation, Orlaith and Ciaran Staunton, who will share why sepsis awareness and patient and family engagement are critical. They speak from painful experience: The sepsis death of their 12-year-old son in 2012 was entirely preventable.

The Essential Hospitals Engagement Network seeks to foster and spread improvement on sepsis among members in the coming year. Do you have a success story to share? Let us know in the comments below.