The Long Stay Patient

This is the most generic of all hot case scenarios.

The objectives of examination are to go though all the systems and identify the reason the patient is still in ICU.

These could include:

  • Ongoing ventilator dependence, slow wean
  • Ongoing haemodynamic instability
  • Ongoing delirium, behavioural management issues
  • A chronically decreased level of consciousness
  • Abdominal wound issues, ongoing complex wound care

The goal of discussion is to suggest strategies to manage these issues, and prepare for discharge.

Previous hot cases with this sort of theme to them can be found below.

~Examination of the Long Stay ICU Patient~

The standard introduction

  • The examiner will give you a history.

The prelude to the dance

  • Wash hands.
  • Gown and glove.
  • Ask, if relevant:
    • "Can I turn on all the lights?"
    • "Are there any movement restrictions? Can I sit them up, or roll them on their side?"
    • "Is there a language barrier?"
  • Introduce yourself: “Hi Mr or Mrs Bloggs, I’m Dr So-and-so. I’m going to examine you.”

The Monitors

  • Rhythm
  • Rate
  • Morphology: QRS width,
  • MAP and abnormal morphology of the arterial waveform
  • CVP and abnormal morphology of the CVP waveform
  • Ancillary waveforms eg. the PA catheter waveform
  • Oxygen saturation measurement, and the quality of the waveform
  • End-tidal CO2 waveform and level

The Ventilator

At the ventilator, try to form an opinion about the ventilation wean. What has frustrated the weaning process?

One can ask the examiners the following questions:

  • How are we oxygenating this patient?
  • How are we ventilating this patient?

One should ask about the following parameters:

  • FIO2
  • PEEP
  • Peak pressure
  • Plateau pressure
  • Tidal volume and minute volume

One should ask to look at the pressure-volume loops.

Urine catheter

  • Unusual colour
  • Anuria

Drains (surgical, intercostal, etc)

There may be surgical drains (what is in them? How much of it?). Asking how much has been coming out may be relevant in a hot case which focuses on the diagnosis of a shock state.

The pleural catheters are also interesting. One should make a mental note of whether the ICCs are on free drainage or on suction. The content of these drains could be informative, especially if one notices blood or chyle.


A CVVHDF or SLEDD process may be in progress. The savvy candidate may wish to ask the following questions:

  • Which modality is being used?
  • What is the dose of dialysis?
  • What is the rate of fluid removal?
  • How is the circuit anticoagulated?
  • How long has this filter lasted?

These questions may go unanswered.


The patient you are examining may have some sort of extra gadget hooked up. If ECMO is in progress, one may wish to ask about the following parameters:

  • VA or VV?
  • Flow rate
  • Fresh gas flow
  • Any recent problems with the circuit

If IABP counterpulsation is in progress, it raises additional questions. One may wish to ask the examiners whether one may be able to switch it to 1:2, to assess the efficacy of augmentation.

This patient's long stay in ICU may be because they are waiting for a transplant. One should be prepared to discuss fitness for heart/lung transplantation.


This stage is critically important. The drug and fluid infusions which are currently in progress give a clue as to what problem is currently being addressed. One should not neglect the labelled bags; the choice of antibiotics gives one some idea of where the source of sepsis is thought to be.

The long stay patient may have absolutely no infusions running.

The physical examination

Expose and observe

Ideally, one should get the patient sitting up to 30-45°. This may not be possible. However, one should still ask for it.

Ideally, the patient should be exposed from the waist up. The candidate can then stand back and look for anything externally obvious:

  • Skin colour, eg. jaundice or the discolouration of chronic renal failure
  • Muscle wasting, obesity
  • The evidence of trauma, wound dressings, etc
  • The pattern of breathing (eg. whether there is a characteristic chest flail)

Specific stigmata of long stay in ICU should be pursued:

  • Grooming: is the patient dressed in home clothes, shaved, and otherwise looking like they have moved in?
  • Depression: flat affect
  • Nutrition: is the patient looking cachexic?


Performing the GCS should be the first step.

The level of consciousness then determines how you go about examining the rest of the patient.

In general, the long stay patient will require a detailed neurological examination. One would not want to miss a high C-spine injury.

A traditionalist, who is examining Mr Bloggs, would approach the GCS in the following manner:

  • Grab hold of both of the patient's hands.
  • "Mr Bloggs!" One pauses to observe for eye opening.
  • "Can you squeeze my hands?"
  • If hand squeezing and eye opening is not observed, one administers a painful nail bed stimulus to both hands, to observe the response to pain.

Hands, nail signs, pulse and the arterial line.

One has just performed a GCS assessment; one is still holding the hands.

Now, time to look at them more closely.

First, one should spent a second assessing whether they are warm or cold.

Then, one can focus on the nails. Nail signs are numerous and deserve their own page.

In brief, the nail signs one could look for are as follows:

Done with the nails, one may want to briefly consider (and maybe even comment upon) the presence of any sort of characteristic deformities, eg. assymetrical wasting of the small muscles, or the joint changes of rheumatoid arthritis.

Next comes the pulse. While one still has both of the patient's hands, one ought to try to compare the radial pulses. It would be worthwhile to look up at the arterial line trace at this stage; abnormalities such as the widened pulse pressure of aortic regurgitation may not have been noticed until this stage.


Tone of the upper limbs

Move up from the hands. While you are still holding the hands, you can perform a sort of gross examination of tone by pronating and supinating the wrists, and by flexing and extending the elbows.


In the conscious patient, it may be possible to assess asterixis by asking the patient to hold both their arms up with the wrists dorsiflexed.

Cubital fossa

Examine the cubital fossa for

  • Peripheral lines
  • Evidence of multiple venepunctures
  • Lymph nodes
  • Brachial pulse
  • The presence of an obvious AV fistula

One should then palpate the axillary lymph nodes.

The Neck

  • Inspect any central lines
  • Look again at the CVP

Palpate the neck:

  • Trachea: is it midline? Is there a new tracheostomy there?
  • Thyroid gland
  • Cervical lymph nodes
  • Carotid pulse - one side at a time!
  • Submandibular lymph nodes
  • Pre- and post-auricular lymph nodes

Pupils and the higher cranial nerves

The examination of the face and head is always affected by the level of consciousness.

The exact sort of examination one is able to perform is dependent entirely on the level of consciousness. A fully conscious extubated patient can perform the entire spectrum of cranial nerve tests; a deeply unconscious patient may have no motor response to pain, and one will be limited to testing the reflexes only; a paralysed patient won't even have those.

Thus, this section can be divided into three broad groups:

The paralysed patient The unconscious patient The awake patient

A sophisticated and detailed cranial nerve examination is desirable, but impossible within the timeframe permitted by the hot case. The following is a short list of cranial nerve examination techniques.

The long stay patient may be "staying long" because of some sort of brainstem stroke, and this needs to be discovered by the candidate.

Visual acuity

A Snellen chart is ideal, but probably will not be available.

The extubated patient should be able to read the time on the clock in the room.

One performs this test with each eye individually.

This tests CN II.

Light reflex

Ask the examiners to dim the room lights.

Open both eyes. Each eye is exposed to light. The opposite pupil should constrict consensually.

This tests CN II (afferent) and CN III (efferent).

Corneal reflex

The cornea (not the sclera) is touched lightly with a moistened corner of a piece of gauze.

A normal reflex is to blink.

This tests CN V (afferent) and CN VII (efferent)

Eye movements

The conscious patient will be able to follow the tip of the candidate's finger.

The pattern of movements should be tracing the six cardinal points: superior left, inferior left, superior center, inferior center, superior right, inferior right.

This tests CNs II, IV and VI.

Facial pain sensation

Typically, this is performed by putting some pressure on the superior orbital notch.

The patient should either open their eyes or localise.

This tests CN V.

Facial movements

The conscious patient will be able to perform a series of grimaces to assess the bilateral motor control of facial muscles:

  • Raise eyebrows to wrinkle forehead
  • Squint eyes to assess periorbital muscles
  • Bare teeth to assess nasolabial muscles
  • Blow out cheeks

Oculocephalic reflex

In the comatose patient, as the head is moved from left to right, the eyes should move in the opposite direction. A fixed unchanging gaze is a negative test; the reflex is not working.

This tests CNs III, IV, VI, and most importantly VIII.

Cold caloric reflex

Cold water is funneled into the patient's ear. A positive reflex consists of the eyes turning towards the chilled ear. This is a more potent stimulus for CN VIII than the oculocephalic reflex.

Airway and the lower cranial nerves

Now that one has finished with the upper cranial nerves, one can move on to the mouth, airway, and swallowing apparatus.

Gag reflex

The Yankeur sucker is used to probe the posterior pharynx, on both sides. A gag reaction should result from this.

This collectively tests CN X and IX.

Cough reflex

While on the subject of CN X, one may test the cough reflex by suctioning the trachea.

This tests CN X.

This is also a convenient time to ask about the volume and character of the secretions.

Tongue movements

The conscious patient is asked to protrude their tongue, and move it from side to side.

This tests CN XII.

Uvula deviation

The uvula deviates away from the lesion.

This tests CN X and IX.

Shoulder shrug

The conscious patient is asked to shrug their shoulders against resistance.

This tests CN XI.

Thus, the whole process should look like this:

  • Ask the patient to read the time in the room (or similar)
  • Ask the examiners to dim the room lights. Open both eyes and test the light reflex and consensual pupillary constriction.
  • Test the corneal reflex with a moistened gauze piece.
  • Test eye movements by asking the patient to follow your fingertip with their eyes.
  • Test for facial pain sensation
  • Ask the patient to grimace: raise eyebrows, squint eyes, bare teeth, blow out cheeks.
  • Test the oculocephalic and/or cold caloric reflex in the comatose patient.
  • Test the gag reflex with the sucker.
  • Test the cough reflex by suctioning the trachea.
  • Open the patient's mouth, and look for a deviated uvula.
  • Ask the patient to stick out their tongue and move it from side to side.
  • Ask the patient to shrug their shoulders.

During the cranial nerve examination, one will inevitably end up tripping over the endotracheal tube. One should note whether there is anything unusual there; for instance, is there a dual-lumen tube, or a bronchial blocker?

A tracheostomy is a more likely airway ornament in these people. One should not whether it looks well healed (i.e. cronic, pre-dating the ICU admission) and whether it is on blow-over or T-piece.

Chest palpation, percussion and auscultation


One puts both their hands on the chest to assess the symmetry of chest expansion.


One might wish to percuss the chest.

Changes in percussion resonance may be worth commenting on.


One may begin by auscultating the apices anteriorly. Then, one should auscultate as posteriorly as possible. The money is in the bases.

Palpation and auscultation of the praecordium


The clever candidate will make a big show of palpating both the apex and the right sternal edge.


One should auscultate in the following sequence:

  • Apex
  • Left sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Right sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Both carotids

The various clicks and murmurs one encounters are discussed elsewhere.

Abdominal palpation, percussion and auscultation

For this, one should ask to lay the patient flat.

Abdominal observation

  • Take a moment to behold the abdomen. One may ask the examiners to look under any surgical dressings; one is likely to be denied this part of the examination (they will tell you the wound looks clean and dry).

Abdominal palpation

  • All quadrants should be palpated.
  • Then, feel for the liver edge; observe respiratory excursion
  • Then, feel for the spleen.
  • Then, try to ballot the kidneys. Enquire about renal tenderness.

Abdominal percussion

  • This can double as a test for peritonism.
  • If there is some suspicion of ascites, one may ask to roll the patient, so shifting dullness can be better appreciated. The examiners may not permit this test.

Abdominal auscultation

  • One should spend a good length of time on this, if one suspects bowel obstruction or ileus.

Examination of the pelvis and groins

The pelvic content would have been palpated during the abdominal examination.

The more important part of this examination is the groin.

At this stage, the patient should be re-draped - cover them from the waist up, and uncover their legs.

Observation and palpation of the pelvis:

  • There may be a rash of thrush, or a groin haematoma, or an external fixation device.
  • The posterior pelvis and sacrum should ideally be palpated for pitting oedema.

Examination of the lines

  • One should take notice of anything going into or coming out of the femoral vessels.
  • There may be a vascath. Is this patient receiveing plasmapheresis for some sort of autoimmune neuromuscular disease, one begins to wonder.

Examination of the genitals and rectum

  • A complete examination would call for the palpation of the testes, and a comment on their size. However, this may not be practical.
  • One should take note of any sort of waste management devices, eg. rectal tube, SPC or IDC.
  • One should definitely ask about performing a PR.
  • If one is forbidden from performing the PR, one should ask about the following features:
    • Anal sphincter tone
    • Size and quality of the prostate
    • Presence of melaena or hard stool

Before you are done with the pelvis, you should find out

Once one is finished with the pelvis, one should cover it again, so that only the legs are sticking out.

Examination of the lower limbs

One should ask to remove TEDs and compression stockings.

  • One should observe whether the lower limbs are mottled, and whether they are of the same size (assymetrical swelling leads one to suspect lymphoedema or DVT)
  • One should palpate the larger muscles. Muscle wasting - especially of the quads- is an important feature of malnutrition. Additionally, one gets to appreciate the temperature difference between the limbs, which could be important in the assessment of peripheral vascular disease.
  • Pitting oedema should be palpated.

Leg muscle tone

The best way to test muscle tone is by holding the knee. Roll the knee gently to distract the patient; then try to lift it off the bed. In the presence of increased tone, the leg will remain straight and the whole thing will lift up; with normal or decreased tone, only the knee will bend

Calf tenderness

In the conscious patient, one might be able to assess whether a gentle calf squeeze produces the characteristic pain which suggests a DVT may be present.

This brings one to the feet, and to the beginning of the neurological examination.

Feet and the Babinsky reflex

The feet would have already been palpated to assess their temperature, and to look for pitting oedema.

Observation of the feet

One should look specifically for changes suggestive of chronic diabetic foot disease, or chronically poor vascular supply.

Palpation of the feet

This should consist of palpating the dorsalis pedis and posterior tibial pulse.

Babinsky reflex

One should test the Babinsky bilaterally.


One should attempt to assess clonus in both feet.

Power in the lower limbs

Now is the time to properly start the neurological examination of this patient.

Power of the muscle groups may be tested in the following sequence:

  • Ankle dorsi and plantarflexion
  • Knee flexion and extension
  • Hip flexion, extension, adduction and abduction.

Power in the upper limbs

The patient has spent most of this time flat and supine. Time to sit them back up again.

Power of the upper muscle groups may be tested in the following sequence:

  • Hand grip
  • Wrist dorsiflexion/palmarflexion
  • Elbow flexion/extension
  • Shoulder adduction / abduction

Reflex testing

Now that one is back to the upper limb, one may as well start their reflex tests there.

The reflexes may be tested in the following order:

  • Brachioradialis
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Knee jerk
  • Ankle jerk

Sensory testing

After testing the ankle jerk reflex, one is again back to the feet.

At this stage, with a conscious patient, one may wish to test light touch sensation.

The following order (with corresponding dermatomes) is suggested:

  • Sole of the foot (S1)
  • Lateral lower leg (L5)
  • Medial lower leg (L4)
  • Medial knee (L3)
  • Anterior upper quads (L2)
  • Umbilicus (T10)
  • Nipple level (T5)
  • Medial forearm (T1)
  • Pinky finger (C8)
  • Middle finger (C7)
  • Thumb (C6)
  • Lateral forearm (C5)
  • Posterior shoulder (C4)

The cerebellar examination of the critically ill patient

One should complete the exmaination with some cerebellar tests. This is unlikely to greatly aid the diagnstic process, but if you are lucky it will produce the impression of somebody who is thorough and systematic.


This would have become apparent during the testing of the eye movements.

Resting tremor

This would have become apparent during the test for nystagmus

The finger-nose test

This is an assessment of coordination. The patient is asked to alternate between touching their nose and touching the finger of the candidate, who keeps changing its position.

The heel-shin test

The patient is asked to run the heel of one foot along the shin of the opposite leg.

The measured observations

Ask to see the obs chart. If it is not allowed, ask for the following:

  • Trends of blood pressure and heart rate
  • Temperature
  • Drain output
  • Urine output

The laboratory investigations

One needs to show an interest in the following labs:

  • ABG
  • Routine bloods
  • Urinalysis
  • Culture results
  • Case-specific bloods, eg. CK, troponin, LFTs, pancreatic enzymes, inflammatory markers...

Imaging and other investigations

One should always ask for the following:

  • ECG
  • CXR

You sometimes want to see the following:

  • CSF analysis
  • CT or MRI results


Case presentation and discussion:

"Mr Bloggs remains in ICU because of several ongoing issues, of which the dominant is [insert clever diagnosis here]."

"I have come to this conclusion on the basis of the following findings: [insert clinical findings here]"

"His condition is [deteriorating / showing signs of slow improvement]"

"I would like to confirm my diagnosis with the following investigations: [insert appropriate investigations]"

"The other present issues are as follows: [a brief list of management problems]"

"In summary, barriers to discharge form the ICU are [blah]"

"I would approach the management of these issues in the following manner: [list of management strategies; it helps to organise this into an A,B,C,D,E approach if one has a complex multisystem problem to manage]"

Number of previous hot cases in this topic: 7

2014, paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Sydney

  • 56-year-old man, one month in ICU with severe necrotising pancreatitis, septic shock and multi-organ failure and subsequent right femoral DVT. Clinical findings included GCS 15, cachexia and proximal muscle weakness, ongoing respiratory failure, AF/flutter and low dose vasopressor support and an abdominal drain.
  • Candidates were asked to examine him with a view to identifying the ongoing clinical issues and the management priorities
2013, paper 2

Nepean Hospital

  • 67-year-old male, re-admitted to ICU 26 days earlier following a MET call for reduced level of consciousness. He was admitted initially post decompressive craniotomy for a spontaneous SDH and his first ICU stay had been complicated by refractory intracranial hypertension, failed extubation, non-convulsive status epilepticus and DVTs. Clinical findings included right hemiparesis and the presence of a right-sided craniectomy and a tracheostomy. Candidates were asked to examine him and assess whether he was ready for discharge to the ward. Further discussion points included interpretation of CT and MRI brain, the discrepancy between the anatomical site of the SDH and clinical findings, management of tracheostomy, DVT prevention and management and prognosis.

Liverpool Hospital

  • 47-year-old female, almost 3 months in ICU with severe ARDS and multi-organ failure secondary to influenza A pneumonia and subsequent complications including anuric renal failure, pancreatitis with pseudocyst and critical illness weakness. Clinical findings included morbid obesity, generalized weakness, bibasal crackles, significant peripheral oedema and the presence of a tracheostomy, dialysis catheter and abdominal drain. Candidates were told that she had presented with pneumonia 80 days previously and were asked to examine her with a view to determining why weaning had taken so long and how they would proceed from this point. Other points of discussion included interpretation of imaging, abnormal blood results and the management of pancreatitis
2011, Paper 1

Westmead Hospital

  • 39-year-old female, with background of atypical dermatomyositis and immunosuppression, readmitted to ICU with worsening respiratory failure and new onset sepsis. Recent discharge from ICU following PJP for which she required ECMO and prolonged mechanical ventilation. Current issues include neuromuscular weakness and prolonged hospital stay.
2010, Paper 1

Austin Hospital

  • Deconditioned 69 year old male who had problems following CABG resulting in tracheostomy and a VATS procedure. Patient awake and breathing spontaneously on a tracheostomy shield. Reduced air entry L lung and chest drain in situ. Candidates were told patient had had recent thoracic surgery and had had a near arrest after early extubation. They were asked to assess whether the patient was fit for transfer to the ward. Chest X ray and clinical examination showed poor aeration L lung.
2009, Paper 2

St George Hospital

  • Community pneumonia + flu in a man with longstanding weakness due to polio. Multiple issues contributing to difficult wean – barrel chest, scoliosis, abdominal distension, bleeding tracheostomy, weak cough, pulmonary hypertension. Discussion of long term ventilatory support options.
2008, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital

  • A 64 year old male with GB syndrome in ICU for 2 months, ventilator dependant. Candidates were asked to examine and determine diagnosis and problems related to long term ICU stay.