Five Questions

For Secretary Marylou Sudders combating sepsis is personal, too

Marylou Sudders
Marylou Sudders, Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services

Marylou Sudders has been Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services since 2015. Trained as a social worker, she has addressed public health problems throughout her career as a public official, private non-profit executive, advocate and college professor. Encouraging collaboration among diverse stakeholders, she has been involved in improving care and outcomes in response to the opioid crisis. Patient Safety Beat talked with her about the Massachusetts Sepsis Consortium and learned that her commitment to the issue is fueled both by professional interest and personal experience.

Betsy Lehman Center: What lessons have you learned in raising awareness of other public health problems, such as the opioid epidemic, that might be applied to efforts to stem sepsis? 

Secretary Sudders: As a professional social worker, I believe public health issues are best addressed working with a broad group of individuals with different perspectives who share a common vision of tackling seemingly intractable or vexing health problems. As an example, as chair of Governor Baker’s Working Group on Opioids, I had the privilege of working with 18 individuals with divergent backgrounds and expertise, ranging from family members to clinicians to judges. They held strong convictions regarding the opioid epidemic and potential solutions. Together, we reviewed the professional literature and available data, held listening sessions across the Commonwealth to hear the heartache and hope of more than 1,100 individuals, and convened panels of experts on particular topics. The Governor’s charge was to disrupt the status quo and to deliver a plan in three months. The Action Plan adopted a public health strategy of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery and identified 65 specific recommendations, many of which are being implemented. The result of the Working Group’s effort is that for the first time in years, the state has had a slight decrease in opioid related deaths. 

Although a person dies every two minutes in the U.S. from sepsis, it remains not well understood by most people. By creating a broad coalition and developing a multisector collaborative approach, the Massachusetts Sepsis Consortium goal of increasing public awareness about the signs and symptoms of sepsis should result in saving lives. Given the complex nature of sepsis and the fact that this disease knows no social or economic boundaries, no single group can address this health issue alone.

The hopeful news is that sepsis is treatable if diagnosed early.

Betsy Lehman Center: Massachusetts health care stakeholders have a history of coming together to solve big problems. In what ways do you think a consortium like this is well-suited to make similar progress on sepsis?

Secretary Sudders: Massachusetts has a rich history of strong, bipartisan collaboration. It is one of the reasons why it is such a privilege to be Secretary. Our collaborative spirit has tackled health insurance coverage, the opioid epidemic, raised the smoking age to 21 to name but a few public health examples. These efforts were the result of strong collaboration and a sustained effort by government, the medical community, advocates, insurers and so many stakeholders. The Massachusetts Sepsis Consortium is a group of nearly 30 organizations representing many perspectives that care deeply about improving health care in the Commonwealth. Together, we will achieve our shared goal of ensuring that everyone in Massachusetts knows the signs and symptoms of sepsis and the need to seek immediate treatment. Together, we will also work with the provider community to make sure that they are prepared to recognize and treat sepsis.

Betsy Lehman Center: Patients and family representatives affected by sepsis are members of this consortium. From your time as a social worker, can you talk about the benefits (to the work and to other members of the consortium) of including their unique perspectives?

Secretary Sudders: Sepsis awareness is critically important, as no one is immune from this disease. While certain groups are more at risk, sepsis can affect any man, woman or child in the state. 

The hopeful news is that sepsis is treatable if diagnosed early. But patients and their loved ones need to know the symptoms and seek treatment quickly. Given the complex nature of sepsis, we need a comprehensive approach. In understanding complex medical issues and identifying solutions, it is essential to include patients and loves ones in the process. Their experience provides invaluable insight and perspective particularly when it comes to identifying solutions and effective public awareness campaigns. Frankly, I can’t imagine not including the perspectives of loved ones and patients in complex medical problem-solving.

I understand the pain of losing a loved one to sepsis. Three summers ago, my closest family member, my older sister, Susan, died from sepsis that was not diagnosed until it was too late. It wasn’t until after her death that I came to understand how pervasive sepsis is as a cause of death in the U.S. and how preventable it is if there is early and accurate diagnosis and treatment. 

It wasn’t until after my sister's death that I came to understand how pervasive sepsis is as a cause of death in the U.S. and how preventable it is if there is early and accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Betsy Lehman Center: Health care quality improvement work can be hard, and the work is never really done. How do we raise and sustain the sense of urgency when something like sepsis is threatening and harming so many lives? 

Secretary Sudders: All of us must be committed to ensuring the highest quality of health care that is affordable to every resident of the U.S. The creation of this Consortium is the first critical step in addressing sepsis in the Commonwealth and in engaging in a strong public awareness campaign. The fact that the Consortium encompasses the broad health care community, families and patients will ensure that the message spreads far and wide across the state. Engaging with the medical community to increase its understanding of the signs, symptoms and effective treatment for sepsis will result in saving lives.

Betsy Lehman Center: Where would you like to see Massachusetts in terms of progress on sepsis in two years’ time? 

Secretary Sudders:We will be successful if the number of individuals who die from sepsis decreases. Sepsis currently affects more than 40,000 Massachusetts residents every year, resulting in approximately 7,000 deaths. It is also the most common cause for hospitalization in our state apart from normal child birth labor and delivery, and is the third most expensive cost of hospitalization. I look forward to working with the Consortium to improve awareness, early detection and treatment of sepsis and to reduce preventable harm and death in the Commonwealth. Together, we can reduce sepsis deaths, improve patient care and reduce the cost associated with this life-threatening illness.

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