The Patient with Multi-Organ System Failure

This hot case is about collecting evidence of as many organ system failures as possible, and then deciding whether there is a satisfactory single explanation for them. There may not be.

Then, the real trick is coming up with a sensible plan of management, even if it is "quick, call the family".

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

Examination of the Critically Ill Patient with Multi-Organ System Failure

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

A pacing box?

  • Pacing mode
  • Set rate

Sensitivity and pacing threshold may not be relevant.

The Ventilator

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.

Take special note of the FiO2. This may be ridiculously high.

Urine catheter

  • Unusual colour
  • Anuria
  • Pyuria

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?


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 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.


One should observe the following features of an EVD:

  • Set height
  • Whether it is open or closed
  • The CSF colour - eg. is it full of blood?

Weird machinery

MARS machinery or plasmapheresis equipment may be present; there may be a continuous EEG monitor, or a cooling blanket (in the post-arrest scenario).

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)


Performing the GCS should be the first step, unless you notice that a neuromuscular junction blocker is among the infusions. The level of consciousness then determines how you go about examining the rest of the patient.

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.

Look for characteristic nail signs.

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

Also, one may look for hand signs:

  • assymetrical wasting of the small muscles
  • joint changes of rheumatoid arthritis
  • Hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropathy

Assess the pulse. Compare the radial pulses.


  • Perform a gross examination of upper limb tone.
  • Look for asterixis in the conscious patient

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 cranial nerves

Cranial nerve examination in MOSF may not yield many useful findings in terms of diagnosis. However, one may discover that underneath the crashing organ systems is a patient with a severe stroke. This will influence management.

Thus, at least a brief cranial nerve examination is expected.

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 III, 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


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.

The ETT should be briefly addressed. One should ask for how long the patient has been intubated.

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, a PiCCO catheter or some sort of angiography sheath. These are important clues. Why did this patient get an angiogram? What is the PiCCO for?

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.
  • One should also ask whether the vagina has been examined for retained tampons.
  • 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

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

A detailed neurological examination may not be called for.

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

One may also wish do demonstrate an interest in the trends of any sort of advanced haemodynamic monitoring, eg. cardiac index as measured by PAC or PiCCO

The laboratory investigations

One needs to show an interest in the following labs:

  • ABG
  • Routine bloods
  • Urinalysis
  • Culture results
  • CK, troponin, LFTs, pancreatic enzymes, inflammatory markers
  • Trend in vasopressor requirements
  • Trend in bone marrow recovry
  • Trend in hepatic enzymes

In short, one wants to see whether there is any organ system improvement; or whether the patient is in a spiral of decline.

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: when you have a good idea of what is going on

"Mr Bloggs is suffering from multi-organ system failure. [insert clever diagnosis here]."

"The involved systems include [list of systems]"

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

"It is possible that this syndrome is the consequence of [single unifying aetiology]"

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

"The current management issues are as follows: [a brief list of management priorities]"

"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]"

"The prognosis is poor, and I would like to engage the family in a discussion".


"The organ system recovery is satisfactory, and I would like to further optimise supportive care by [improving nutrition, weaning from ventilation, physiotherapy, cessation of sedation and corticosteroids, etc]"

Case presentation and discussion: when you don't have a clue

"Mr Bloggs is suffering from multi-organ system failure. [insert clever diagnosis here]."

"The involved systems include [list of systems]"

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

”This is a complex case and I am unable to associate these features with a single aetiology on the basis of my findings alone."

"The possible aetiologies responsible for this presentation could include [list of differentials]"

"In order to discriminate between these differentials, I would like to perform the following investigations: [list of investigations]"

"Furthermore, I would like to enlist the help of the following specialties [insert list of consults], for whom I will have the following specific requests/questions: [what questions will you ask these specialist teams]"

Number of previous hot cases in this topic: 20

2015, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Adelaide

35-year-old female, three weeks in ICU post re-do MVR with peri-operative multi-organ failure, complicated post-operative course and slow ventilatory wean. Background included ESRF on dialysis. Findings on examination included tracheostomy, high sputum load, old ICC site, small tidal volumes on moderate level of pressure support ventilation, low vasopressor requirement, prosthetic heart valve, signs of right heart failure, general deconditioning and global weakness, presence of AV fistula in left forearm, and evidence of melaena in faecal management system.

Candidates were directed to identify the major issues with a plan for their management. Discussion points included causes of failure to progress.

2014, paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Sydney

  • 75-year-old female, day 5 ICU post jejunal flap to the hard palate for SCC palate and background of cardiomyopathy with PPM/AICD, and chronic kidney disease requiring intermittent haemodialysis, now managed with CRRT. Clinical findings included gross oedema, swollen neck, abdominal incision, previous donor graft sites, AV fistula right upper limb, dusky oral jejunal flap, hypothermia, presence of CRRT circuit and TPN.
  • Candidates were told she was day 5 post-jejunal flap for oral cancer and asked to examine her with a view to a plan for ongoing management.
2013, paper 2

Westmead Hospital

  • 49-year-old male, day 2 ICU, with mesenteric and retroperitoneal bleed following emergency coronary angiogram and anti-platelet and anticoagulation therapy for inferior STEMI. Clinical findings included a distended tender abdomen and the presence of a right groin arterial puncture site. Candidates were told he had been given multiple anti-platelet agents for ACS and had developed respiratory failure and been intubated and was now oliguric with elevated creatinine. Candidates were asked to determine the reasons for his deterioration. Discussion points included interpretation of the ECG and CT abdomen, cause for his abdominal distension, cause for his renal failure, management of his coagulation status and suitability for extubation.

Liverpool Hospital

  • 24-year-old male day 27 in ICU with a background of Lennox-Gustaut syndrome and a recent diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukaemia, admitted with neutropaenic sepsis and bilateral pulmonary infiltrates. He had failed weaning and had a recent deterioration with worsening hypoxia. Clinical findings included gross fluid overload, bilateral pleural effusions with left collapse/consolidation and pericardial effusion. Candidates were asked to assess him and formulate a management plan. Discussion points included weaning strategies, principles of CRRT and management of sepsis, including possible sources.
2013, Paper 1

Flinders Medical Centre

  • 80-year-old woman, with a history of rheumatoid arthritis and colon cancer, admitted with epigastric pain and referred to ICU following clinical deterioration with hypotension, hypoxia and oliguria. Candidates were asked to assess her and provide a differential diagnosis for her deterioration and a management plan.
2012, Paper 2

St Vincent’s Hospital

  • 59-year-old man with hypotension, hypothermia and collapse secondary to a stroke and subsequent septic shock. Clinical findings included multi-organ failure, limb ischaemia, purpura fulminans, GCS 3, signs consistent with previous pneumonectomy and gas trapping. Candidates were asked to examine him with regard to the likely diagnosis and management issues.
2012, Paper 1

Prince Charles Hospital

  • 28-year-old man 18 weeks+ in ICU with severe necrotizing pancreatitis requiring multiple necrosectomies complicated by SIRS, MOF and a frozen abdomen. Candidates were asked to identify the main clinical issues.
2011, Paper 2

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • 70-year-old male admitted with multi-organ failure and intra-abdominal sepsis secondary to perforated duodenum post lap cholecystectomy. Candidates were directed to assess the patient with a view to determining the current problems and making a management plan for the next 24-48 hr. Discussion points included intra-abdominal sepsis, antibiotic choice, use of vasopressors, anticoagulation for CRRT, nutrition plan and CXR and ABG

Prince of Wales Hospital

  • 75-year-old male, ICU day 12 with community-acquired pneumonia, septic shock and multi- organ failure, on CPAP/PS via oral ETT, anuric on CRRT and requiring low dose vasopressor support. Candidates were directed to assess the patient with a view to planning for weaning from ventilatory support
2011, Paper 1

Westmead Hospital

  • 49-year-old male with ongoing sepsis and multi-organ failure due to left lower lobe community-acquired pneumonia. Complications include left sided empyema and septic right knee.

Westmead Hospital

  • 43-year-old female with intra-abdominal sepsis and multi-organ failure, including acute on chronic renal failure. Co-morbidities include COPD, T2DM and severe chronic pain with multiple analgesic use
2010, Paper 2

Flinders Medical Centre

  • A 65 year old male admitted with pneumonia and septic shock and MODS. Background h/o arthropathy requiring immunosuppression. Problems included: slow respiratory wean, MODS, CVVHDF, obvious features of steroid therapy and a deforming polyarthopathy 

Flinders Medical Centre

  • A 46 year old female with a past history of antiphospholipid syndrome and a mechanical MVR admitted with ascending cholangitis complicated by a cardiac arrest. Required emergent re do MVR as well as an urgent laparotomy.
    Current problems included:

a) Slow respiratory wean

b) Ongoing tracheostomy bleed



e) Evidence of intravascular hemolysis

Flinders Medical Centre

  • A 76 year old male with a past history of IHD and CABG admitted with acute hyperkalemia and ARF in the contect of a recent hospitalization for pneumonia. Current issues included: VAP, RV dysfunction, and residual acute renal failure.
2010, Paper 1

Alfred Hospital

  • A middle aged man on V-A ECMO post MI who also had MODS and renal failure. Candidates asked to assess patient and comment on methods of assessing global and tissue perfusion
2009, Paper 2

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • A 68 year old man who had been in ICU for about a week, admitted with septic shock. Past history of TB meningitis, and DM and SLE. Current issues: Septic shock, disseminated cryptococcal disease, ARF on CVVHDF, poor nutritional state, liposomal amphotericin

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • A 58 year old male admitted to ICU after aspiration in recovery post laparotomy. Current issues: Failed trial of ECMO wean, worsening lung infiltrates, barotraumas, multi organ failure and hypothermia

Prince of Wales Hospital

  • 65 year old obese patient with ischaemic heart disease presenting with urosepsis, shock and MODS. Issues for discussion: Managememnt of shock, nephrostomy, CRRT, inotrope therapy, weaning plan.
2008, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital

  • A 73 year old man with MODS following a recent staphylococcal bacteremia. Other findings included evidence of a septic circulation on a PA catheter, PPM, fluid overload, and evidence of multi-organ dysfunction.
2007, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital

  • An 81 yr old lady with acute on chronic failure on peritoneal dialysis with signs of sepsis, abdominal pain and encephalopathy. Discussion: on sepsis / renal failure and dialysis