Severe sepsis claims the lives of 215,000 Americans each year—more than lung, colon and breast cancer combined. Due to its complex nature, the global medical community had not come to an agreement on best methods for identifying the onset and progress of this condition, making the diagnosis, and ultimately the treatment of severe sepsis, a clinical challenge.

Spearheaded by the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine (ESICM), International Sepsis Forum (ISF) and Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), and with assistance from Belsito & Company, the Surviving Sepsis Campaign (SSC) was created to increase awareness, understanding and knowledge of severe sepsis; define standards of care and reduce the mortality associated with this infection by 25 percent over the next five years.

One of the first and most historic actions of SSC was to develop the first-ever clinical management guidelines to address the treatment of patients with severe sepsis. The guidelines were slated to be unveiled at the annual meeting of the Society for Critical Care Medicine on February 24, 2004.

To illustrate the importance and the life-saving impact of the sepsis guidelines, Belsito & Company researched the impact of similar treatment guidelines (i.e., guidelines for heart attack which cut death rates in half) over the past 20 years. Additionally, the Belsito team conducted interviews with key critical care opinion leaders and executed a Lexis Nexis search for any previous media coverage.

Armed with extensive research, the PR team pitched top-tier news outlets and key medical trades. In order to bring to life the devastating nature of severe sepsis, Belsito & Company researched notable individuals that had died from severe sepsis. Our research yielded two celebrities—Muppeteer Jim Henson and Journalist Dick Schaap. The Belsito team also identified six individuals who had survived sepsis because of timely diagnosis and treatment.

The objective was to aid the Surviving Sepsis Campaign in their mission and goals through a comprehensive media campaign aimed at raising awareness of severe sepsis as a stealthy but preventable killer and position the guidelines as the most effective way for healthcare professionals to reduce sepsis deaths.

The messages were that severe Sepsis is a cascading infection that can lead to organ failure and ultimately death; severe Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that can be stopped only through timely diagnosis and treatment; this deadly condition strikes two in one hundred hospital admissions and is the leading cause of death in the non-coronary ICU; and that the mission of the Surviving Sepsis Campaign is to reduce sepsis deaths by 25 percent over five years.

The strategy was to leverage the stellar reputations of the SSC leadership, including Mitchell Levy, M.D., Medical Director of Medical Intensive Care Unit at Rhode Island Hospital and Phillip Dellinger, M.D., Director of the Critical Care Section of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, to secure the prominent and in-depth interviews necessary to explain the medical significance of the SSC Guidelines. Additionally, Belsito & Company needed to strive to find a story at the intersection of medical trade and consumer medical.

Belsito & Company approached the media through targeted pitch letters, a press release, a video news release, an audio news release featuring severe sepsis survivors and a satellite media tour featuring Dr. Mitchell Levy.

Then the Belsito team offered an early exclusive to Chicago-based Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press, tying the “local angle” to Dr. Margaret Parker, guidelines author and incoming president of the Chicago-headquartered Society of Critical Care Medicine. Additionally, the Belsito team also leveraged the revered reputations of Drs. Levy and Dellinger to add credibility to our efforts and to secure interviews with top media outlets.

The objective was to put severe sepsis on the media radar screen via major media placements which resulted in more than 104 million impressions and major media placements including; Associated Press, Prevention, National Public Radio, CBS Radio Network, Newsday, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe and Arizona Republic. In addition, broadcast placements included a lengthy interview with Dr. Mitchell Levy on CNN and an interview with a sepsis survivor on WABC-TV in New York. More than 90 percent of the coverage included at least three of our major messages.

By raising awareness of severe sepsis as a stealthy but preventable killer, within weeks of the first wave of coverage, hits to sepsis websites mentioned in the coverage more than doubled. The AP story ran on February 15 and the CNN interview aired on March 12. Trade press then ran with the story, quoting liberally from our press materials. Belsito & Company blanketed our target audience of healthcare professionals with stories in such highly respected outlets as Drug Topics and Physicians Practice.

Belsito & Company is now seeing the communications effort take on a life of its own. Just as the Belsito team had hoped, two major hospital networks – the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and the Volunteer Hospitals of America—have adopted the severe sepsis treatment guidelines. In addition, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), an organization that licenses hospitals nationwide, is now considering the severe sepsis guidelines as a new quality measure for U.S. hospital intensive care units.