In short, probably not, but still not completely disproven.
This randomised controlled open-label trial looked at giving 2 grams of IV ceftriaxone to patients that met SIRS criteria (save for WBC- testing unavailable to EMS) with suspected infectious illness. Patients were randomly assigned (1:1) to the intervention group or usual care group using block-randomisation with blocks of 4. This study took place across ten large regional ambulance services serving 34 secondary and tertiary care hospitals in the Netherlands over a 2 year period. They screened 3228 patients of which 2698 were eligible (pregnancy, beta-lactam or ceftriaxone allergy, suspected prosthetic joint infection, among others); 1150 in the usual care arm (IV fluids, supplemental oxygen prn), and 1548 in the intervention group (2g ceftriaxone plus usual care). 13 patients in each arm were excluded from final analysis or excluded due to withdrawn consent or being lost to follow up. The primary outcome was all-cause mortality at 28 days.
So, while they screened over 3,000 patients over 2 years (a massive undertaking!), unfortunately, only 37 (3.3%) patients in usual care and 66 (4.3%) patients in the early antibiotics group had septic shock. Perhaps you could make an argument that the intervention group was slightly sicker with 22% vs 17% having 2 or more qSOFA criteria. Despite a median time to antibiotics of 70 minutes in the ED (thus, probably close to 90+minutes faster in the intervention cohort), and with 14% having antibiotics >3hrs from presentation and 14% having none at all (suspected viral syndrome) – there was 8% mortality in both arms at 28 days and 12% at 90 days in both arms. No difference.
When you look at mortality for septic shock it was 27% (10/37) in the prehospital antibiotic cohort vs 28.8% (19/66). Again, not statistically significant. While prehospital antibiotics might make a difference in a larger cohort, its probably going to be very hard to ever do that study – this was a 2 year study looking at over 3,000 patients and they were barely able to accumulate over 100 septic shock patients.
While an American might argue “they only gave ceftriaxone, you need a real drug like Pip-tazo and vancomycin!” – slow down. The authors acknowledge that ceftriaxone may not have been appropriate because it was “a big gun” that they could all agree on and most patients were rapidly narrowed to receive, most commonly, amoxicillin–clavulanic acid with ciprofloxacin and ceftriaxone the second and third most common antibiotics given. They did not have culture reports back at time of publication, but having low mortality, and 9% of each cohort were not given antibiotics from the ED due to suspected viral illness makes me suspect that they do not have nearly the resistance problem (or concerns) that the Americans do, likely do to appropriate stewardship. Likewise, while one may be concerned about missed diagnosis due to premature closure, there was a miss rate of 1.4% in the intervention group vs 1.7% in the usual care group, also not statistically significant.
In the end, the authors provide a sensical view of the current state of prehospital antibiotics, “Studies showing that early antibiotic treatment is beneficial for reducing mortality found this positive association mainly in patients with more severe illness and a (time to antibiotic) of more than 5–6 hours… However, we currently do not advise antibiotic administration in the ambulance to patients with suspected sepsis.“
While it is certainly plausible that prehospital antibiotics may be beneficial for those with septic shock, it is a near certainty that, at least in the USA, sepsis hysteria would further ensue and the inertia of giving everyone a dose of broad spectrum antibiotics will likely occur – not to mention our continued fixation with iatrogenic salt-water drowning. The cost to the system – including other patients in the department – of responding to these prehospital alerts for those not in shock will likely be the hidden cost infrequently published or discussed by administrations.