Authors: Job Rodríguez Guillén. Chief of Emergency Department. Hospital H+ Querétaro. México and Paola Rivero Castañeda. Medical Intern, Anahuac Querétaro University, Mexico.
Clinical examination accounts as a fundamental part in the management of most critical scenarios. Although there are few publications and it remains controversial, its value considered as limited by 50% of medical practicioners (1). None of the well-known semiology books include any section about the physical examination in the critically ill patient (2). Nonetheless, an adequate clinical evaluation at the patient’s bedside may save lives in the context of a serious situation.
Clinical Examination Objectives
The main objectives are identifying and discerning from types of shock, emphasizing in the identification of life-threatening conditions, clinical signs of organic hypoperfusion, as well as to evaluate treatment response regarding therapies employed, and risk stratifying.
Identify hemodynamic instability
- Life-threatening conditions (Tension pneumothorax, Cardiac tamponade, Pulmonary thromboembolism, Active hemorrhage, etc.)
- Organ hypoperfusion
(Altered mental state, decreased uresis, mottled skin, prolonged CFT, etc.)
Evaluate treatment response
- Vital signs and normalization of the clinical state
(Mental state improvement, diminished skin mottling, improved uresis, normalization of prolonged capillary filling time, etc.)
- Scale and prognostic scores calculation. Prognostic scores use a combination of clinical and/or laboratoy variables (SOFA: Squential Organ Failure Assessment; APACHE: Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation; SAPS: Simplified Acute Physiology Score; MPM: Mortality Probability Models, etc.)
Clinical Exam Systematization
The clinician must be able to do a quick and efficient clinical examination to recognize different states of shock as early as possible, or even situations that may compromise organic perfusion. At a given time, it’s suggested to check out the clinical history, re-interrogate the patient and his/her family members, as well as patient’s family/regular physician (or even look for their previous medical notes), in order to help clinical integration, and so for decision making.
Systematization of the evaluating process, based on the previously proposed objectives, can be identified with the following mnemonic: PROA.
PROA - Summary
P - Probabilistic thinking
- Think about any probability.
- Look for intentionally.
- Analyze clinical context and individualize.
R - Risk of dying
Identify life-threatening causes: Cardiac tamponade, Tensionpneumothorax, Pulmonary thromboembolism, Active hemorrhage, etc.
O - Organic hypoperfusion
Cutaneous perfusion signs: examine mottled skin and capillary filling time.
A - Approach of the clinical examination
Clinical exam by regions. Some components may not be relevant for all patients, even requiring other physical maneuvers. Even though laboratory and imaging are not part of the clinical exam, their interpretation must be integrated with the examination findings.
Clinical decision making in the emergency department begins with the estimation of the probability of a determined patient to have or do not have specific conditions (Bayesian reasoning or pretest probability).
Example; the probability of septic shock in a young patient after having a car crash is very low compared to the high probability of presenting with hemorrhagic or obstructive shock.
Proposed decisions related to initial probabilistic thinking vary in clinical relevance depending on the patient’s condition. It should always be re-evaluated through available additional data (posttest probability) (Figure 1).
Risk of Dying
Currently, there are four types of shock, all with a common pathophysiological pathway: acute circulatory insufficiency associated with cell oxygen utilization dysfunction (altered-balance between oxygen input and consumption: DO2/VO2 dysfunction), a central situation that takes part in the development of multiorgan dysfunction (4-5).
Initial physical examination should be directed to the identification of immediate life-threating pathologies such as obstructive shock (Tension pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, pulmonary thromboembolism), hemorrhagic shock etc.
These pathologies require immediate action. Otherwise, early multi-organ dysfunction and death may occur. The Point of Care Ultrasound (PoCUS), is a fundamental tool used for the evaluation of patients with hemodynamic instability of unknown origin.
The initial approach to clinical examination begins with the skin. It is essential to remember that microcirculation cannot be globally defined through its dependency with macrocirculation, autoregulation mechanisms and organ interactions. Moreover, the availability of devices to evaluate it remains limited. Therefore, the evaluation is done from clinical, biochemical and hemodynamic data integration (6) (Figure 2)
The correct way of measuring capillary filling time
Approach of The Clinical Examination
During the initial evaluation, multiple situations can affect the accomplishment of a detailed physical examination. Therefore, it is recommended to follow a structured exploration method, looking at every main organ system and region. Documenting its results would allow avoiding the inclusion of essential data, and would permit to identify tendencies or any change in the patient’s clinical status.
Clinical examination approach in the critically-ill patient.
7Clinical examination approach emphasized in the critically-ill patient. This examination is realized based on every region in the body. Some components may not be relevant for all patients, or even some other maneuvers shall be executed in the physical examination. The verification list should be modified to be adapted to each patient’s circumstances. Laboratory and other studies analysis does not conform part of the clinical examination, although, their interpretation should be added to exploration findings (7).
Clinical integration of initial clinical history and the physical examination should be added to the biochemical complementation as well as advanced hemodynamic monitoring parameters, when these are available. Even so, if clinical examination answers raised questions during the initial evaluating process, the clinician must act according to physiological principles. There is no ideal hemodynamic monitoring, meaning that all parameters have to be individualized for each patient and his/her clinical context. Therefore, clinical examination systematization results are an excellent aid for the clinician regarding his/her clinical practice.
References and Further Reading
- Vazquez R, Vazquez Guillamet C, Adeel Rishi M, Florindez J, Dhawan PS, Allen SE, Manthous CA, Lighthall G. Physical examination in the intensive care unit: opinions of physicians at three teaching hospitals. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2015;10(1):34-43. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc165-14
- Cook CJ, Smith GB. Do textbooks of clinical examination contain information regarding the assessment of critically ill patients?Resuscitation. 2004;60:129–136.
- Zehtabchi S, Kline J.A. The Art and Science of Probabilistic Decision‐making in Emergency Medicine. Academic Emergency Medicine, 17:521-523. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1553-2712.2010.00739.x
- Weil MH, Shubin H. Proposed reclassification of shock states with special reference to distributive defects. Adv Exp Med Biol.1971 Oct;23(0):13-23.
- Ince C. The microcirculation is the motor of sepsis. Crit Care. 2005;9 Suppl 4:S13-9. DOI: 1186/cc3753
- Vincent JL, Ince C, Bakker J. Clinical review: Circulatory shock–an update: a tribute to Professor Max Harry Weil.Crit Care. 2012 Nov 20;16(6):239. DOI: 10.1186/cc11510.
- Metkus TS, Kim BS. Bedside Diagnosis in the Intensive Care Unit. Is Looking Overlooked?. Ann Am Thorac Soc.2015 Oct;12(10):1447-50. DOI: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.201505-271OI.