Case study: death caused by failure to diagnose sepsis

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As medical negligence solicitors, we’ve seen how delays in treating sepsis can have devastating consequences for patients and their families.

A quarter of NHS trusts don’t give antibiotics to patients with sepsis within 60 minutes of diagnosis – the recommended response time to improve chances of survival.

Rates of sepsis diagnosis vary between hospital trusts, suggesting varying levels of awareness among nurses, doctors and other clinical staff.

Medical negligence solicitor and former nurse, Fiona Dabell, dealt with one such case recently. She explains how warning signs were negligently overlooked by a hospital trust, leading to a man’s death from sepsis, despite his GP’s concerns.

Case study: death caused by failure to diagnose sepsis

“Last year we represented a lady whose husband had visited his doctor about a pain in his knee. There was no obvious injury, but the joint was red and felt hot – the man was also known to be at higher than usual risk of sepsis due to another health condition.

The GP did exactly the right thing by referring him to A&E, where he was examined by a consultant, who failed to carry out blood tests or aspirate (drain) the swollen knee.

Our client’s husband was sent home, but the pain continued to increase over the next four days. Although he contacted his GP again about this, they (understandably) assumed there wasn’t cause for concern because he had been cleared by the A&E consultant and subsequently just prescribed him painkillers.

On the fourth day, the man was unable to walk at all. When his feet turned blue, his wife called an ambulance. He was taken to hospital where he later died.

Tests revealed that the infection in the man’s knee had developed and led to sepsis, which in turn contributed to multiple organ failure and brought on cardiac arrest.

The hospital admitted they had breached their duty of care to the man, although they tried to claim he would have died anyway due to his pre-existing state of health.

Nevertheless, we were able to settle the claim for his wife and child. Yet it goes without saying that the compensation won’t make up for the loss of a husband and father who, if he had been examined properly and given antibiotics early enough, may well have lived.

What is especially concerning about this case is that one clinician (the man’s GP) already suspected there might be cause for concern, yet despite this the hospital didn’t even carry out tests as a precaution. I think this further shows the need for better sepsis screening in hospitals as highlighted by the Panorama documentary.”

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