NHS hospitals are ‘taking too long’ to treat suspected sepsis

NHS hospitals are ‘taking too long’ to treat suspected sepsis as figures show one in FOUR patients’ lives are at risk because they aren’t given life-saving antibiotics within an hour

  • An investigation has revealed only 75 per cent of patients get prompt treatment 
  • NHS prioritises getting medicine to suspected sepsis patients within 60 minutes 
  • Dedicated sepsis charity said there is ‘no reason’ it should take any longer 

NHS patients’ lives may be put at risks because hospitals are taking too long to give antibiotics for suspected sepsis.

As many as one in four people thought to have the life-threatening illness are having to wait more than an hour before being treated to prevent it.

The health service says it’s crucial to take no more than an hour to give life-saving medication to anyone who may have sepsis, which can cause organ failure.

But an investigation has found some hospitals leave more than half their patients waiting longer than this.

Among hospitals with data for more than 100 patients between January and March, 20 took longer than hour to treat at least a quarter of their patients – the worst managed only 35 per cent within 60 minutes.  

Experts at dedicated charity the UK Sepsis Trust called the figures ‘concerning’.

Simon Smith, from Dudley, West Midlands, died last year after developing sepsis but having to wait six days before being given antibiotics by doctors at his local hospital

Sepsis is an extremely deadly overreaction of the immune system which causes fever, shivering, a fast heartbeat and erratic breathing.

Around 250,000 people in the UK are thought to develop the illness – which is not an infection – every year, and around 55,000 of them die.

It can kill quickly and is always a medical emergency. People who are already ill or infected with something else are the most likely to develop sepsis.

A spokesman for the UK Sepsis Trust, Dr Ron Daniels, told the BBC treating people within an hour was ‘essential to increase the chances of surviving’.

Testing for sepsis can be slow because it’s not caused by a specific bacteria or virus.

To overcome this the NHS prioritises hooking up patients who might have the condition to intravenous antibiotics as a precaution.

Not doing so raises the risk of septic shock which causes vomiting, dizziness, confusion, severe pain and breathlessness.

This can drop someone into a coma and eventually kill them – sometimes this takes just a matter of hours.

But the BBC’s investigation found only 75 per cent of NHS patients with suspected sepsis got medicine within an hour in January, February and March.


Simon Smith, 51, died last year after contracting sepsis which severely damaged his liver.

He had been admitted to A&E in Dudley in the West Midlands because of a pain in his leg, his wife Hayley told the BBC.

He had hallmark symptoms of sepsis, including a high temperature and rapid heart rate, but medics didn’t give him antibiotics for six days – he survived another four months but ultimately died of the illness.

Mr Smith went to hospital complaining of pain in his leg but developed a high temperature and fast heartbeat – telltale symptoms of sepsis

Mr Smith’s widow, Hayley, said she was ‘angry’ about the delay to giving her husband antibiotics and claims she saw notes saying he should have had them sooner

Mrs Smith, his widow, said: ‘I am just so angry about the delay giving him antibiotics. That could have made all the difference. He had all the signs.

‘I’ve seen notes acknowledging he should definitely have had them on day two – but it didn’t happen.’

The couple’s local health board, the Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust, told the BBC it had offered its condolences to the family but could not comment ahead of an inquest. 

In Wales this was 71 per cent for A&E patients and 83 per cent for inpatients, while there were no figures for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Hospitals have only had to report data on spotting and treating sepsis for the past three years so the NHS can crack down on the deadly condition slipping through medics’ fingers.


NHS hospitals should treat all suspected sepsis patients with intravenous antibiotics within an hour. 

These are the proportions of patients the worst-performing trusts from January to March treated in time.

Note: Hospitals with no data or fewer than 100 patients have been excluded. 

NHS England said hospitals are getting better at it, and in early 2017 only about 60 per cent of people got treated within an hour.

Dr Daniels added: ‘There is no reason why it should take longer.’

Spokeswoman Celia Clark told the BBC: ‘It’s important not to automatically give antibiotics to everyone, instead we want to identify the sickest patients and get them assessed and then quickly give them antibiotics.’ 

Figures show the Salford Royal NHS Trust was the worst performing among those who recorded data for more than 100 patients from January to March this year.

It managed to get antibiotics to just 36 per cent of patients within 60 minutes.

Meanwhile the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals and Bradford Teaching Hospitals both also managed fewer than half, with 42 and 50 per cent respectively.

Others in the 10 worst performing were in Dudley, Aintree, Hull & East Yorkshire, Sunderland, East and North Hertfordshire, Portsmouth and Rotherham. 

Successfully treating more than 90 per cent of patients within an hour were hospital trusts in King’s Lynn; Frimley; East Lancashire; North Cumbria; Barking, Havering and Redbridge; Chesterfield; and Warrington and Halton.

MailOnline has contacted Salford Royal NHS Trust for comment. 


Sepsis occurs when the body reacts to an infection by attacking its own organs and tissues.

Some 44,000 people die from sepsis every year in the UK. Worldwide, someone dies from the condition every 3.5 seconds. 

Sepsis has similar symptoms to flu, gastroenteritis and a chest infection.

These include:

  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine in a day
  • Severe breathlessness
  • It feels like you are dying
  • Skin mottled or discoloured

Symptoms in children are:

  • Fast breathing
  • Fits or convulsions
  • Mottled, bluish or pale skin
  • Rashes that do not fade when pressed
  • Lethargy
  • Feeling abnormally cold

Under fives may be vomiting repeatedly, not feeding or not urinating for 12 hours. 

Anyone can develop sepsis but it is most common in people who have recently had surgery, have a urinary catheter or have stayed in hospital for a long time.

Other at-risk people include those with weak immune systems, chemotherapy patients, pregnant women, the elderly and the very young.

Treatment varies depending on the site of the infection but involves antibiotics, IV fluids and oxygen, if necessary.

Source: UK Sepsis Trust and NHS Choices

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