Driving blind: instituting SEP-1 without high quality outcomes data

Jeffrey Wang, Jeffrey R. Strich, Willard N. Applefeld, Junfeng Sun, Xizhong Cui, Charles Natanson, Peter Q. Eichacker


In 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) instituted an all-or-none sepsis performance measure bundle (SEP-1) to promote high-quality, cost-effective care. Systematic reviews demonstrated only low-quality evidence supporting most of SEP-1’s interventions. CMS has removed some but not all of these unproven components. The current SEP-1 version requires patients with suspected sepsis have a lactate level, blood cultures, broad-spectrum antibiotics and, if hypotensive, a fixed 30 mL/kg fluid infusion within 3 hours, and a repeat lactate if initially elevated within 6 hours. Experts have continued to raise concerns that SEP-1 remains overly prescriptive, lacks a sound scientific basis and presents risks (overuse of antibiotics and inappropriate fluids not titrated to need). To incentivize compliance with SEP-1, CMS now publicly publishes how often hospitals complete all interventions in individual patients. However, compliance measured across hospitals (5 studies, 48–2,851 hospitals) or patients (three studies, 110–851 patients) has been low (approximately 50%) which is not surprising given SEP-1’s lack of scientific basis. The largest observational study (1,738 patients) reporting survival rates employing SEP-1 found they were not significantly improved with the measure (P=0.53) as did the next largest study (851 patients, adjusted survival odds ratio 1.36, 95% CI, 0.85 to 2.18). Two smaller observational studies (158 and 450 patients) reported SEP-1 improved unadjusted survival (P≤0.05) but were confounded either by baseline imbalances or by simultaneous introduction of a code sepsis protocol to improve compliance. Regardless, retrospective studies have well known biases related to non-randomized designs, uncontrolled data collection and failure to adjust for unrecognized influential variables. Such low-quality science should not be the basis for a national mandate compelling care for a rapidly lethal disease with a high mortality rate. Instead, SEP-1 should be based on high quality reproducible evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCT) demonstrating its benefit and thereby safety. Otherwise we risk not only doing harm but standardizing it.