Ten years ago, when Erin Flatley died of sepsis, most of Dr. John Sinnott's patients had never heard of this deadly condition.
"If I'd mention it, most of them would just scratch their heads,'' said Sinnott, who is chief of infectious disease at USF and Tampa General Hospital.
"Now people understand it's just as important as a myocardial infarction.''
What else does he want patients and families to know?
"People need to understand there's a very high mortality rate —750,000 people a year become septic with low blood pressure and high fever, and 1 out of 3 of them die.
"Second, the symptoms can be confused with heart attack, dehydration or pneumonia, so physicians themselves have to have an index of suspicion. It never hurts for a patient to say: 'Could I be septic?' ''
Another reason sepsis has entered the national vocabulary is the push to assess health care quality in the Affordable Care Act. Rates of hospital-acquired infection are a key measure under more scrutiny than ever.
Meanwhile, Sinnott said, there are concrete steps consumers can take to protect themselves and their families.
• Go to doctors and hospitals that do a lot of the procedure you need. Experience means it's more likely that complications will be diagnosed and swiftly addressed.
• Be vigilant about handwashing. Don't be shy to ask your providers if they have washed up before touching you.
• Participate in your care. "We're very happy to see patients with a computer,'' Sinnott said. "I know they'll look up everything I tell them.''
• Ask if your hospital has a sepsis protocol.
• Sweat the small stuff. "You can't micromanage the big stuff,'' Sinnott said. "Even as a physician, I'm in no position to know if I need a heart valve. I have to trust my doctor. But is everyone washing their hands? Are the sheets clean? ...That's all part of the quality of medicine.''