The Curbsiders podcast

#419 Rapid Response Series: Sepsis with Dr. Mohleen Kang

December 4, 2023 | By



Transcripts available via YouTube

A shock to the system

Join us for an infectious conversation about sepsis as we learn about the recognition and initial management of sepsis on the wards. We are joined by Dr. Mohleen Kang (@KangMohleen, Emory University).

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Show Segments

  • Intro
  • Rapid fire questions/Picks of the Week
  • Case
  • Managing rapid response logistics
  • Sepsis Scoring Systems
  • Diagnostic Work-up for Sepsis
  • Access 
  • Antibiotic Management
  • Fluids
  • Pressors 
  • Supportive Measures for Sepsis
  • Outro

Sepsis Pearls

  1. Antibiotics and IV fluids (IVF) should be started within the first hour of onset of suspected sepsis.
  2. In cases of suspected sepsis, patients should receive 30mL/kg of IVF within the first three hours of identifying suspected sepsis.
  3. If a patient receives appropriate fluid resuscitation without response, consider transition or addition of vasopressors (even if administration is peripheral). Ideally, peripheral access should be placed above the antecubital vein. 
  4. The CANDIDA score can be used to help determine if antifungal coverage should be added to a patient’s antibiotic regimen 
  5. Goals of care conversations should take place early in a hospitalization given the difficulty of having such discussions during a rapid response.

Rapid Response Series: Sepsis – Show Notes 

Tips and Tricks for Managing a Rapid Response

Team Roles and Responsibilities 

During this episode we briefly discuss the ins and outs of the rapid response. Dr. Kang recommends knowing your hospital rapid response team and identifying team members’ roles and responsibilities early. Doing so can help minimize the number of  people in the patient’s room during urgent or emergent situations. This varies across hospitals so she emphasizes the need to be aware of who is in this team at your local institution. Team members should have a role in direct care of the patient.. For example, this may include an ICU nurse who can assist with drawing blood and getting necessary access started on the patient, the patient’s day nurse who can provide history as to the events leading to the rapid response, and respiratory therapy for any airway needs. Additionally, the other roles to identify include those who will assist with hospital flow and logistics. This may be a charge nurse or nurse manager who will help ensure prioritization of beds for patients in the appropriately identified unit. 


Similar to identifying roles and responsibilities of the team, it is important to identify the best and fastest route for fluids, antibiotics, and potentially vasopressors. Ideally, this will be a peripheral IV (low gauge number) above the antecubital vein in the event pressors need to be started. If below the antecubital, providers should be more cautious with pressors for risk of extravasation. Dr. Kang reminds us that intraosseous lines (IOs) are an acceptable alternative if a good peripheral cannot be placed. While a central line may be necessary for a patient’s treatment plan in the ICU, it does not need to be placed emergently, as the vast majority of medications can be given peripherally during rapid response. 


Definitions and Scoring Systems 

According to Sepsis-3, sepsis is life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by a dysregulated host response to infection. Clinically, this is defined as a SOFA score of 2 points or higher (see below for criteria). Septic shock is defined as the subset of sepsis in which there are more profound circulatory, cellular, and metabolic abnormalities. Clinically, this is defined by a vasopressor requirement to maintain MAPs > 65 or serum lactate > 2 in the absence of hypovolemia (Singer, 2016). 

There are numerous scoring systems which have been developed over the years to identify sepsis early in patients and to try to improve improve mortality. Below is a list of the scores and their associated criteria. 

Systemic Inflammatory Response Score (SIRS) criteria includes: 

  • Temperature > 38 C or < 36C
  • HR > 90
  • RR > 20 or PaCO2 < 32
  • WBC > 12 or < 4 or differential with > 10% bands 

Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) criteria includes: 

  • PaO2
  • FiO2
  • On mechanical ventilation
  • Platelets
  • Glasgow Coma Scale
  • Bilirubin
  • MAP or use of vasoactive agents
  • Creatinine

Quick Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (qSOFA) criteria includes: 

  • Altered mental status
  • Resp Rate  ≥ 22
  • Systolic BP ≤ 100

National Early Warning Score (NEWS) criteria include: 

  • Resp rate
  • Oxygen saturations
  • Any supplemental oxygen use
  • Temperature
  • Systolic BP
  • Heart rate
  • AVPU score

Modified Early Warning Score (MEWS) criteria include: 

  • Systolic BP
  • Heart rate
  • Resp rate
  • Temperature
  • AVPU score

SIRS was widely used until the Sepsis-3 definition was published in 2016. The downside to SIRS is that it is not specific for sepsis. The Sepsis-3 definition included qSOFA as a screening tool, making it more widely used; however, it has more recently fallen out of favor due to its poor sensitivity (although does have better specificity than SIRS). NEWS performed the best out of the scoring systems (Liu, 2020), but it is cumbersome to use so may not be the best urgent bedside tool. Furthermore, a pooled analysis of three RCTs did not demonstrate a mortality benefit of active screening in inpatient wards (Evans, 2021). Therefore, the scoring systems have noted limitations, and while no single scoring system is ideal for screening, NEWS is most likely the most comprehensive tool available with more evidence to support its use. 

Diagnostic Testing 

It is necessary to obtain a complete work-up for the source of infection. This should start with a thorough history and physical for any localizing source of infection. In terms of diagnostic testing, this should include blood cultures, urinalysis/urine culture, chest x-ray, and a basic set of labs (CBC, BMP). 

Based on the Surviving Sepsis Campaign (SSC) Guidelines, it is also recommended to get an initial lactate and to trend the lactate to resolution (Evans, 2021). 

Lastly, Dr. Kang reminds us that it may be necessary to engage with surgical consultants early, if the source of infection may require surgical intervention. 


Antibiotics should be given within one hour of probable sepsis (Evans, 2021). While considering a potential source of infection, it is reasonable to utilize broad spectrum antibiotics.  Source control is imperative, so as mentioned above, early consultation with surgical subspecialties is important while concomitantly deciding on antibiotics. 

Specific considerations for MRSA coverage, consider whether a patient has related risk factors: prior history of MRSA infection or colonization, recent IV antibiotic use, history of recurrent skin infections or chronic wounds, presence of invasive devices, hemodialysis, recent IV antibiotic use or hospital admissions, and severity of illness (Evans, 2021). Dr. Kang utilizes MRSA nares swabs to de-escalate antibiotic choices after the patient has been stabilized (expert opinion)

Specific considerations for double coverage of multidrug resistant organisms (MDROs) include: “proven infection or colonization with antibiotic-resistant organisms within the preceding year, local prevalence of antibiotic-resistant organisms, probable hospital-acquired infection, broad spectrum antibiotic use within the preceding 90 days, concurrent use selective digestive decontamination, travel to a highly endemic country within the preceding 90 days, and hospitalization abroad within the preceding 90 days” (Evans, 2021).

Regarding antifungal coverage, Dr. Kang utilizes the CANDIDA score (Leon, 2006) to help guide utility of empiric antifungal coverage (expert opinion)

IV fluids 

Based on the current SSC guidelines, it is recommended to provide 30 mL/kg of fluid within the first 3 hours of identifying sepsis-induced hypoperfusion hypotension (Evans, 2021). Additionally noted in the guidelines is the recommendation to favor balanced crystalloids instead of normal saline for resuscitation (Evans, 2021). This is based on the SMART trial which provides low quality of evidence due to the study being single center, non-randomized, non-blinded, but showed lower mortality in those who received balanced fluids over normal saline (Semler, 2018).  

Lastly, per the SSC guidelines, they do recommend albumin in the event that the patient has already received substantial fluids. Theoretically this helps to maintain oncotic pressure. However, Dr. Kang reminds us that it is a low value care intervention, and can be difficult to obtain quickly depending on your hospital system. 


While the ability to use pressor support on the floor varies across institutions, this practice is supported by the recent CLOVERS trial (Shapiro, 2023) and is also recommended in the SSC guidelines (Evans, 2021) in patients who are not responsive to fluids. 

CLOVERS compared a restrictive fluid strategy to liberal fluid strategy. Briefly, if a patient came in with sepsis induced hypotension refractory to 1-3L of fluids, they were randomized to either receive vasopressors with rescue fluids compared to additional fluids alone. There was no difference in mortality between these groups. The study allowed for peripheral catheters for initial vasopressor support and demonstrated only 2 occurrences of extravasation among 500 patients who received peripheral pressors (Shapiro, 2023). 

If the patient has already received the recommended fluid resuscitation without response, Dr. Kang  prefers to transition to pressor support. She reminds us that in this situation, most patients are in the process of transferring to the ICU. As an additional expert opinion, she recommends using a peripheral access above the antecubital vein while waiting for transfer to ICU and placement of central line. Usually she starts norepinephrine at the lowest dose and titrates up as needed for response (Evans, 2021). Dr. Kang also reminds us that every institution is unique in what may be available in a code cart or on the floor, and that something (i.e. alternative pressor like vasopressors like, dopamine, dobutamine)  is better than nothing depending on the severity of the situation.   

Supportive Measures 

There are several supportive therapies that are used for sepsis, especially once the patient has transferred to the ICU. Some of these considerations include: oxygen goals, steroids, transfusion requirements, stress ulcer prophylaxis, VTE prophylaxis, acute kidney injury management, bicarbonate, nutrition support, and glucose control (Evans, 2021). However, as this is managed mostly in the ICU, many of these are not discussed in depth during this episode. A few of these measures begin on the wards though so are discussed below. 

If there is no evidence of ARDS early on, Dr. Kang recommends using a pulse oximetry goal of > 92%. She does remind us that a pulse ox may not be very accurate during the rapid response as they may not be perfusing well. If there is evidence of ARDS, positive airway pressure (PAP) ventilation therapy should be considered early.

Dr. Kang recommends against using steroids during initial rapid response where sepsis is identified, but is something that may be considered if the patient has known adrenal insufficiency. Additionally, they may be considered in the ICU if the patient is having inadequate response to fluids and pressors (Evans, 2021). 

Lastly, the SSC guidelines recommend against using IV vitamin C as part of early management of sepsis (Evans, 2021).

Prognosis and Palliative Care

Returning to definitions briefly, sepsis (clinically defined as SOFA of 2 or higher) is associated with a 10% in hospital mortality. Septic shock (clinically defined as having a vasopressor requirement to maintain MAPs > 65 or serum lactate > 2 in the absence of hypovolemia) is associated with a 40% in hospital mortality (Singer, 2016). 

Due to the high mortality risk of sepsis and septic shock, Dr. Kang reminds us of the importance of goals of care conversations early in the hospital stay as it can be difficult to address prognosis and planning emergently during the rapid response. 


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Listeners will be able to manage sepsis on the floor and identify reasons to escalate the level of care.

Learning objectives

After listening to this episode listeners will…

  1. Discern the differences between SIRS, sepsis and septic shock
  2. Determine appropriate initial amount of fluids for resuscitation in a patient with sepsis.
  3. Identify appropriate initial empiric antimicrobial therapy in a patient with suspected sepsis.
  4. Recognize when and how to initiate pressor support on the floor.


Dr. Kang reports no relevant financial disclosures. The Curbsiders report no relevant financial disclosures. 


Trubitt M, Amin M, Evans S, Coleman C.“#419 Rapid Response Series: Sepsis with Dr. Mohleen Kang. The Curbsiders Internal Medicine Podcast. Final publishing date December 4, 2023.

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Episode Credits

Producers, Writers, and Hosts: Meredith Trubitt, MD and Monee Amin, MD
Show Notes: Meredith Trubitt, MD
Infographic and Cover Art: Sean Evans or Caroline Coleman
Reviewer: Leah Witt, MD
Showrunners: Matthew Watto MD, FACP; Paul Williams MD, FACP
Technical Production: PodPaste
Guest: Mohleen Kang, MD, MSc

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The Curbsiders are partnering with VCU Health Continuing Education to offer FREE continuing education credits for physicians and other healthcare professionals. Visit and search for this episode to claim credit.

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