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Using objective clinical data to track progress on preventing and treating sepsis: CDC’s new ‘Adult Sepsis Event’ surveillance strategy
  1. Chanu Rhee1,2,
  2. Raymund Barretto Dantes3,4,
  3. Lauren Epstein4,
  4. Michael Klompas1,2
  1. 1 Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School/Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  3. 3 Department of Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
  4. 4 Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Chanu Rhee, Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School / Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, United States; crhee{at}

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Sepsis is a leading cause of death and suffering, afflicting 1.7 million adults annually in the USA and contributing to over 250 000 deaths.1 The high burden of sepsis has catalysed numerous performance improvement and policy initiatives, including mandatory sepsis protocols in a growing number of US states, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) ‘SEP-1’ measure, and WHO’s resolution declaring sepsis a global health priority.2 Hospitals around the world are dedicating considerable resources to improving sepsis recognition and compliance with treatment bundles.

However, accurately measuring the impact of sepsis quality improvement efforts is challenging. The core problem is that diagnosing sepsis involves considerable subjectivity.3 Sepsis is a heterogeneous syndrome without a pathological gold standard. It is defined as infection leading to organ dysfunction,4 but it is often unclear whether a patient is infected and whether organ dysfunction is due to infection or other factors such as dehydration, medications, cancer, or inflammatory diseases.

The challenge of sepsis measurement is compounded by the rapidly changing clinical and regulatory milieu. Clinicians are being encouraged to screen for sepsis more aggressively and both clinicians and administrators are being encouraged to code for sepsis and organ dysfunction more diligently to maximise reimbursement. The net effect is that many patients that previously were never labelled with sepsis are now being counted.3 5–8 These additional cases tend to have milder disease and lower mortality rates. If a hospital uses administrative codes to track sepsis, there is a high probability they will see higher sepsis case counts and lower sepsis mortality rates that are due at least in part to more ascertainment.9 10

Some hospitals prospectively track cases that trigger sepsis screens or perform retrospective audits of hospitalisations flagged by administrative data.11 12 New York state’s ‘Rory’s Regulations’ allow …

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  • Funding Dr Rhee received support from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (grant no K08HS025008).

  • Disclaimer The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.