Missed Sepsis Diagnosis

On Behalf of | Jul 19, 2017 | Medical Malpractice

Sepsis is one of the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions among patients, particularly in a hospital setting. It typically comes on the heels of an initial infection and the symptoms from both conditions can cause confusion. It is a serious medical issue and can be fatal. It is typically viewed as having three stages: sepsis, severe sepsis, and septic shock. The mortality rate of people who reach the septic shock stage is around 50%.

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is often called blood poisoning. When there is an infection in the body, such as the flu, heart disease, kidney infection, or even a sinus infection, the body releases chemicals to fight it. Sometimes these chemicals are released and it triggers an inflammatory response that gets into the bloodstream and goes throughout the body. It can cause problems with the patient’s organs, even causing them to fail. This is what sepsis is.

While anyone can get sepsis, people with weakened or compromised immune systems and the elderly are considered high risk. This condition is best caught early because waiting until the patient is in severe sepsis or septic shock can be deadly. When it is caught early enough, the doctor can treat it with IV fluids given as well as antibiotics. The longer it stays in the body, the more damage it does.

Sepsis Stages and their Symptoms

The best outcome for sepsis is to treat in the early stages before the condition gets too severe and dangerous. Each stage has certain symptoms:

  • Sepsis – Must have at least two of these symptoms
    • Fever that is higher than 101 F or lower than 96.8 F
    • Heart rate that exceeds 90 beats per minute
    • Respiratory rate that exceeds 20 breaths per minute
  • Severe Sepsis – In addition to sepsis symptoms from the first stage the patient must also have at least one of these symptoms (they indicate possible organ failure)
    • Urine output has significantly decreased
    • Mental status changes abruptly
    • Platelet count drops
    • Breathing difficulty
    • Heart is pumping abnormally
    • Abdominal pain
  • Septic Shock -Patient must have symptoms of severe sepsis as well as blood pressure that is extremely low and does not respond appropriately to simple replacement of fluids.

The underlying infection that typically prompts sepsis may also have symptoms that interfere with how the sepsis symptoms are viewed. This may lead to a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis.

How do Doctors Miss a Sepsis Diagnosis?

Many people feel that because sepsis is so dangerous that there should be more stringent guidelines in place for doctors to follow and make a more accurate diagnosis. However, it isn’t always that simple. The symptoms of sepsis closely mimic many other conditions so the doctor needs to get a complete history to see if there have been any recent surgeries, invasive medical procedures, or infections in the body.

Both the underlying infection and the sepsis must be treated in order to ensure the patient’s health. The early stages of sepsis closely mimic many simple viral infections that clear up on their own. Doctors in the emergency department are tasked with assessing each patient and determining if they need to stay in the hospital or if they can go home. The characteristics of sepsis make this very difficult.

Some patients come into the emergency department and it is obvious that they are septic. Others do not seem to show any signs at all. However, people are still dying because they are being misdiagnosed in the early stages, the condition progresses, and by the time an accurate diagnosis is made it is too late.

It isn’t always easy to diagnose sepsis, but taking the time to review the patient’s medical history and discuss any recent infections or illnesses can provide valuable clues that direct the physician toward a potential sepsis diagnosis. It takes time and diligence, but by looking at the current symptoms as well as the history, diagnoses can be more accurate.

Misdiagnosis and Malpractice

A missed sepsis diagnosis can make a person very sick, can lead to organ failure, or it can be fatal. Each year many people file claims with the court citing medical malpractice and misdiagnosis. When a claim of missed sepsis diagnosis is presented, the plaintiff (the patient) must show that the defendant (the doctor) failed to take the steps that a reasonable provider would have taken in similar circumstances.

A formalized approach, known as a Sepsis Protocol, would help on both sides. It would help the doctors diagnose sepsis faster and begin treatment sooner.

If you or a loved one became Septic after a misdiagnosis, we can help. Call Kaire & Heffernan today for a free consultation and speak with one of our caring, experienced attorneys. Don’t go through it alone; let us help.


Mark Kaire has been practicing law in Miami for nearly 30 years. He is dedicated to helping the injured people of Miami receive compensation. Mr. Kaire has been blogging on Miami’s legal issues for many years.