Guidelines to Caring for Patients With Sepsis: Promise or Progress?

ContagionAugust 2017
Volume 2
Issue 3

Care continues to improve; however, drug-resistant pathogens and a lack of new agents to treat these infections remain a constant challenge.


  • Emphasis remains on early and adequate fluid resuscitation for patients who meet clinical criteria for sepsis.
  • Removal of most specific EGDT end points, with greater emphasis place on patient-centric resuscitation approach.
  • Timely initiation of antimicrobials is paramount, with increased emphasis on appropriate de-escalation and antimicrobial stewardship as a key health care initiative.

The Surviving Sepsis Campaign was launched in 2002 by representatives from the Society of Critical Care Medicine and the European So­ciety of Intensive Care Medicine. The Surviving Sepsis Guidelines were published soon thereafter, in 2004, with revisions in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Moreover, as revisions occurred the definition of sepsis has con­tinued to evolve. A list of updates to the definitions is shown in the Table. Given the pervasiveness of sepsis and its associated high mortality rate, the introduction and implementation of Surviving Sepsis Campaign ini­tiatives improved patient care and decreased mortal­ity.1 The revisions to these guidelines, as new literature emerged, have undoubtedly also significantly improved patient care. Select updates to the 2012 guidelines, which are available in the 2016 version, are described herein.2

Initial resuscitation of patients with crystalline fluids continues to be a cornerstone of therapy in patients with sepsis. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the shift away from protocolized resuscitation efforts, bet­ter known as early goal-directed therapy (EGDT).3 EGDT comprises specific endpoints that should be achieved within 3 and 6 hours from the identification of sepsis, while, usual care includes fluid administration, anti­biotics and supportive care in a less formalized fash­ion. This paradigm shift is in response to findings from a trio of large randomized controlled trials: ARISE, ProCESS and ProMISe.4-6 Compared with usual care, these trials failed to demonstrate a mortality benefit when EGDT was implemented. It is worth noting that the definition and implementation of “usual care” has improved since the original EGDT trial was conducted. Moreover, in the aforementioned trials, the lack of harm when using the protocolized EGDT led to the guidelines continuing to endorse EGDT targets.

Another highlight of the 2016 guidelines is the use of different variables to assess fluid responsiveness. Pre­vious iterations of the guidelines suggested that clini­cians target a central venous pressure (CVP) of 8 to 12 mmHg (12-15 mmHg if mechanically ventilated) for fluid resuscitation goals. This shift away from using CVP as a marker of responsiveness was based on findings from the FENICE study, among others, which revealed little clinical utility of this static factor when CVP is within normal range.7-9 The FENICE findings also highlighted the need to promptly discontinue fluids once they are deemed no longer beneficial, as poor patient outcomes are a proven consequence of excess net fluids.9 From this, the 2016 guidelines shifted to a resuscitation approach more focused on measurements in the individual patient, with assessment based on dynamic variables such as pulse or stroke volume.

Source control and timing of antimicrobial therapy is reiterated in the 2016 guidelines. Regarding timing, several observational studies have demonstrated in­creased risk of mortality when antimicrobial therapy is delayed.10,11 The guidelines reemphasize the 1-hour time threshold to initiate appro­priate therapy after sepsis or septic shock is recognized, noting that feasibility has not been directly assessed and may be challenging for some centers. Although the timing of therapy is important, selection and dose are equally important. The 2016 guidelines highlight the use of pharmacokinetic/phar­macodynamic principles when selecting and dosing antimicrobials. Clinical pharmacists should be able to assist clinicians in doing both, and clinicians should strongly consider consulting them.

Other recommendations remain from the 2012 guide­lines, including appropriate de-escalation, the use of procalcitonin to expedite de-escalation or discontinuation, and appropriate durations of therapy. The em­phasis on appropriate de-escalation and antimicrobial stewardship, in general, in this iteration of the guide­lines is particularly noteworthy, as those areas have be­come key initiatives in all health care facilities in 2017.12

The concept of “double coverage” with antimicrobials in critically ill patients has been the subject of debate for many years and has become essentially clinician-specific. The 2016 update suggests the use of empiric combination therapy in patients with septic shock; however, the evidence for this recommendation is weak, with little sup­port found in randomized controlled clinical trials. The importance of combination therapy is emphasized by the heightened risk of mortality with inadequate coverage.13

Clinicians may experience a certain sense of comfort in initiating empiric combination antimicrobial therapy in any patient, not just in those who are critically ill. However, this sense can be fallacious and should be off­set somewhat by the ques­tionable benefit that double coverage imparts to patients who have pathogens that are resistant to multiple drugs. Organisms that are resistant to beta-lactams are also likely to be resistant to a second, added agent, such as a fluo­roquinolone or an aminogly­coside; even if the resistance is not present, the second agent may simply provide no benefit.14 Although many attempts have been made to address this question, the resulting data have provided mixed answers and the need for empiric combination therapy in all critically ill patients remains controversial.

Despite recent data from trials that suggest EGDT is no better than usual care, the evolution of care for septic patients continues to improve. However, challenges re­main, particularly with drug-resistant pathogens and the relative dearth of new agents. Fortunately, ongoing clin­ical trials will continue to shed light on areas of contro­versy in this most recent iteration of the guidelines, and certainly there is promise in the progress being made.

Updates to the Definition of Sepsis from 2012 to 2016

Dr. Burchette graduated from Gatton College of Pharmacy in 2010 before completing 2 years of postgraduate residency. She has been a faculty member for 5 years, with a didactic emphasis in pulmonary and critical care PharmD coursework. Clinically, she works in the acute care setting with an academic family medicine team. She is an active member of SIDP.

Dr. Cluck is an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Gatton College of Pharmacy. He maintains a clinical pharmacy practice in infectious diseases at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Virginia, as well as a weekly outpatient HIV clinic with the ETSU HIV Center of Excellence. He is also an active member of SIDP, ACCP, ASHP, IDSA, and AAHIVM.


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  4. Peake SL, Delaney A, Bailey M, et al; ARISE Investigators; ANZICS Clinical Trials Group. Goal-directed resuscitation for patients with early septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2014;371(16):1496-1506. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1404380.
  5. Yealy DM, Kellum JA, Huang DT, et al; ProCESS Investigators. A randomized trial of protocol-based care for early septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(18):1683-1693. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1401602.
  6. Mouncey PR, Osborn TM, Power GS, et al; ProMISe Trial Investigators. Trial of early, goal-directed resuscitation for septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2015;372(14):1301-1311. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1500896.
  7. Cecconi M, De Backer D, Antonelli M, et al. Consensus on circulatory shock and hemodynamic monitoring. Task force of the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine. Intensive Care Med. 2014;40(12):1795-1815. doi: 10.1007/s00134-014-3525-z.
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  9. Cecconi M, Hofer C, Teboul JL, et al; FENICE Investigators; ESICM Trial Group. Fluid challenges in intensive care: the FENICE study: a global inception cohort study. Intensive Care Med. 2015;41(9):1529-1537;1737-1738. doi: 10.1007/s00134-015-3850-x.
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