Case Study: A Systematic Approach to Early Recognition and Treatment of Sepsis

Submitted by Madeleine Augier RN BSN

Tags: assessment Case Study emergency department guidelines mortality prevention risk factors sepsis standard of care treatment

Case Study: A Systematic Approach to Early Recognition and Treatment of Sepsis

Share Article:

Sepsis is a serious medical condition that affects 30 million people annually, with a mortality rate of approximately 16 percent worldwide (Reinhart, 2017). The severity of this disease process is not well known to the public or health care workers. Often, health care providers find sepsis difficult to diagnose with certainty. Deaths related to sepsis can be prevented with accurate assessments and timely treatment. Sepsis must be considered an immediate life-threatening condition and needs to be treated as a true emergency.

Relevance and Significance

Sepsis is defined as “the life-threatening organ dysfunction resulting from a dysregulated host response to infection” (Kleinpell, Schorr, & Balk, 2016, p. 459). Jones (2017) study of managing sepsis affirms that the presence of sepsis requires a suspected source of infection plus two or more of the following: hyperthermia (>38.1 degrees Celsius) or hypothermia (<36 degrees Celsius), tachycardia (>91 beats per minute), leukocytosis or leukopenia, altered mental status, tachypnea (>21 breaths per minute), or no urine output for 12 hours. If the infection persists, acute organ dysfunction or failure occurs from widespread inflammation, eventually leading to septic shock (Palleschi, Sirianni, O’Connor, Dunn, & Hasenau, 2013).  Palleschi et al.  (2013) states that during septic shock, “the cardiovascular system fails, resulting in hypotension, depriving vitals organs of an adequate supply of oxygenated blood” (p. 23). Ultimately the body can go into multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS), leading to death if there is inaccurate assessment and inadequate treatment.

The purpose of this case study is to make the nurse practitioner aware of the severity sepsis, and how to accurately diagnose and treat using evidence-based data. Sepsis can affect everyone, despite his or her age or comorbidity.  Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has diagnosed this problem as a priority and uses sepsis management in determining payment to providers (Tedesco, Whiteman, Heuston, Swanson-Biearman, & Stephens, 2017). This medical diagnosis is unpredictable and presents a challenge to nurse practitioners worldwide. Early recognition and treatment of sepsis by the nurse practitioner is critical to decrease morbidity and mortality.


After completing this case study, the reader should be able to:

  • Identify the risk factors of sepsis
  • Identify the signs and symptoms of sepsis
  • Identify the treatment course of sepsis

Case Presentation

A 65-year-old Asian female presented to the emergency department accompanied by her husband with a chief complaint of altered mental status. Upon assessment, the patient was lethargic, and alert and oriented to person only. The patient’s heart rate was 136, blood pressure 104/50, oral temperature 99 degrees Fahrenheit, oxygen saturation 97% on 4 liters nasal cannula, and respirations 26 per minute. The patient’s blood glucose was obtained with a result 454.

Further orders, such as labs and imaging were made by the provider to rule out potential diagnoses. A rectal temperature was obtained revealing a fever of 103.7 degrees Fahrenheit. The patient remained restless on the stretcher. After one hour in the emergency department, her heart rate spiked to 203 beats per minute, respirations became more rapid and shallow, and she became more lethargic. The patient’s altered mental status, increasing heart rate and respirations caused the providers to act rapidly.

Medical History

The patient’s husband reports that she is a type one diabetic, he denies any other medical conditions. In addition, the patient’s husband states that she has not been exposed to any sick individuals in the past few weeks. The husband reports a family history of diabetes, other wise no significant familial history. No history of smoking, drinking, or illicit drug use was to be noted.

Physical Assessment Findings

The patient appeared lethargic and confused with a Glasgow Coma Scale of 12. She appeared tachypnic, with shallow respirations, and a rate of 28 breaths per minute. Upon auscultation, breath sounds were coarse. Her abdomen was soft and non-tender, no nausea or vomiting noted. The patient appeared diaphoretic, and her legs were mottled.

Laboratory and Diagnostic Testing and Results

During the initial assessment, a complete blood count (CBC), basic metabolic panel (BMP), and lactic acid level were ordered for blood work. A STAT electrocardiogram (EKG), urinalysis, and a chest X-ray were ordered to differentiate possible diagnoses. The CBC revealed leukocytosis with a white blood cell count of 23,000 and an increased lactic acid level of 4.3. The anion gap and potassium level remained within a normal limit, ruling out the possibility of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). The patient’s EKG showed supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The chest X-ray revealed infiltrates to the right lung. The urinalysis was free from leukocytes or nitrites. Blood cultures were ordered to confirm their hypothesized diagnosis, septicemia.


The provider initiated intravenous (IV) fluid treatment with Lactated Ringers at a bolus of 30 mL/kg. Because the patient’s heart rate was elevated, 6 mg of adenosine was ordered to combat the SVT. Additionally, broad-spectrum IV antibiotics were initiated. One gram of vancomycin and 3.375 grams of piperacillin-tazobactam were the preferred antibiotics of choice.

Final Diagnosis

Upon arrival, the providers were ruling out DKA and sepsis, given the patient’s history.

The patient’s elevated white blood cell counts, temperature, lactic acid level, heart/respiratory rate, and altered mental status were all clinical indicators of sepsis. The chest X-ray revealed a right lung infiltrate, persuading the providers to diagnose the patient with sepsis secondary to pneumonia.

Patient Management

After sepsis was ruled as the patient’s diagnosis, rapid antibiotic administration and IV fluid treatment became priority after the patient’s heart rate was controlled. A cooling blanket and a temperature sensing urinary catheter was placed to continuously monitor and control the patient’s fever. Later, the patient was transferred to a critical care unit for further treatment. Shortly after being transferred, the patient went into respiratory failure and was placed on a ventilator. After two days in the ICU, the patient remained in septic shock, and died from multisystem organ failure.


When the patient initially presented to the emergency department, accurate and rapid diagnosis of sepsis was critical in order to stabilize the patient and prevent mortality. A challenge was presented to the provider regarding a rapid diagnosis due to the patient’s history and her presenting signs and symptoms. Increased awareness and interprofessional education regarding sepsis and its’ treatment is vital to decrease mortality. Health care providers need to be competent in recognizing and accurately treating sepsis in a rapid manner.

Research shows that outcomes in sepsis are improved with timely recognition and early resuscitation (Javed et al., 2017). It is important for the provider to identify certain risk factors and symptoms to easily diagnose sepsis. A research study by Henriksen et al. (2015) proved that age, and comorbidities including psychotic disorders, immunosuppression, diabetes, and alcohol abuse served as top risk factors for sepsis.

Once the diagnosis of sepsis is determined, rapid treatment must be initiated. The golden standard of treatment consists of a bundle of care that includes blood cultures, broad-spectrum antibiotic agents, and lactate measurement completed within 3 hours as described by Henriksen et al. (2015). A study by Seymour et al. (2017) showed that the more rapid administration of the bundle of care is correlated with a decreased mortality rate. In addition, The Survival of Sepsis Campaign formed a guideline to sepsis treatment; Rhodes et al. (2016) suggests giving a 30 mL/kg of IV crystalloid fluid for hypoperfusion. If hypotension persists (mean arterial pressure <65), vasopressors, preferably norepinephrine, should be initiated (Rhodes et al., 2016). Prompt recognition of sepsis and implementation of the bundle of care can help reduce avoidable deaths.

To increase awareness, interprofessional education regarding sepsis and its’ common signs and symptoms needs to be established. Evidence-based protocols should be utilized in hospital care settings that provide nurse practitioners with a guideline to follow to ensure rapid and accurate treatment is given. Increased awareness and education helps providers and other healthcare workers to properly identify and accurately treat sepsis.


The public and health care providers must become more aware and educated on the severity of sepsis. It is crucial to be able to recognize signs and symptoms of sepsis to prevent further complications such as septic shock and multi-organ failure. Increased awareness, interprofessional education, accurate assessment, and rapid treatment can help reduce incidence and mortality. Sepsis management must focus upon early goal-directed therapy (antibiotic administration, fluid resuscitation, blood cultures, lactate level) and individualized management pertaining to the patient’s history and assessment (Head & Coopersmith, 2016). Misdiagnosis and delay in emergency treatment can result in missed opportunities to save lives.


  1. Head, L. W., & Coopersmith, C. M. (2016). Evolution of sepsis management:from early goal-directed therapy personalized care. Advances in Surgery, 50(1), 221-234. doi:10.1016/j.yasu.2016.04.002
  2. Henriksen, D. P., Pottegard, A., Laursen, C. B., Jensen, T. G., Hallas, J., Pedersen, C., & Lassen, A. T. (2015). Risk factors for hospitalization due to community-acquired sepsis-a population-based case-control study. PLOS ONE, 10(4), 1-12. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124838
  3. Javed, A., Guirgis, F. W., Sterling, S. A., Puskarich, M. A., Bowman, J., Robinson, T., & Jones, A. E. (2017). Clinical predictors of early death from sepsis. Journal of Critical Care, 42, 30-34. doi:10.1016/j.jcrc.2017.06.024
  4. Jones, J. (2017). Managing sepsis effectively with national early warning scores and screening tools. British Journal of Community Nursing, 22(6), 278-281. doi:10.12968/bjcn.2017.22.6.278
  5. Kleinpell, R. M., Schorr, C. A., & Balk, R. A. (2016). The new sepsis definitions: Implications for critical care. American Journal of Critical Care, 25(5), 457-464. doi:10.4037/ajcc2016574
  6. Palleschi, M. T., Sirianni, S., O'Connor, N., Dunn, D., & Hasenau, S. M. (2013). An interprofessioal process to improve early identification and treatment for sepsis. Journal for Healthcare quality, 36(4), 23-31. doi:10.1111/jhq.12006
  7. Reinhart, K., Daniels, R., Kissoon, N., Machado, F. R., Schachter, R. D., & Finfer, S. (2017). Recognizing sepsis as a global health priority-A WHO resolution. The New England Journal of Medicine, 377(5), 414-417. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1707170
  8. Rhodes, A., Evans, L. E., Alhazzani, W., Levy, M. M., Anotnelli, M., Ferrer, R.,...Beale, R. (2017). Surviving sepsis campaign: International guidelines for management of sepsis and septic shock: 2016. Intensive Care Medicine, 43(3), 304-377. doi:10.1007/s00134-017-4683-6
  9. Seymour, C. W., Gesten, F., Prescott, H. C., Friedrich, M. E., Iwashyna, T. J., Phillips, G. S.,...Levy, M. M. (2017). Time to treatment and mortality during mandated emergency care for sepsis. The New England Journal of Medicine, 376(23), 2235-2244. doi:10.1056/NEJMoal1703058
  10. Tedesco, E. R., Whiteman, K., Heuston, M., Swanson-Biearman, B., & Stephens, K. (2017). Interprofessional collaboration to improve sepsis care and survival within a tertiary care emergency department. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 43(6), 532-538. doi:10.1016/j.jen.2017.04.014