Patient Care

Can Sepsis Be Better Defined?


Clinical question: Given advances in the understanding and treatment of sepsis, can sepsis be better defined?

Background: Definitions of sepsis and septic shock were last revised in 2001. The current definitions are based on a constellation of clinical signs and symptoms in a patient with suspected infection. Recent studies suggest that the definitions have low sensitivity and specificity, and they do not correlate well with patient outcomes.

Study design: Consensus guidelines.

Setting: Task force of 19 critical care, infectious disease, surgical, and pulmonary specialists convened in 2014 by the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine and the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

Synopsis: The task force recommended that sepsis be defined as life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by a dysregulated host response to infection and that it be identified by a change of more than one point in the Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score. This score incorporates the Glasgow Coma Scale, mean arterial blood pressure (MAP), PaO2/FiO2, platelet count, creatinine, and bilirubin. Septic shock is defined as a subset of sepsis with profound circulatory, cellular, and metabolic abnormalities, and it’s identified by serum lactate level >2 mmol/L and vasopressor requirement to maintain a MAP of ≥65 mm Hg in the absence of hypovolemia. These new definitions have higher sensitivity and specificity and can predict mortality more accurately. Patients with these definitions of sepsis and septic shock have in-hospital mortality >10% and >40%, respectively. The presence of two or more quick SOFA (qSOFA) elements (altered mentation, systolic blood pressure ≤100 mm Hg, and respiratory rate ≥22/min) identifies adult patients with suspected infection who need more extensive laboratory testing to exclude sepsis.

Bottom line: Defining sepsis now requires more laboratory testing but provides more diagnostic consistency and more accurately predicts outcomes.

Citation: Singer M, Deutschman CS, Seymour CW, et al. The Third International Consensus definitions for sepsis and septic shock (sepsis-3). JAMA. 2016;315(8):801-810. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.0287.

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