Triage in emergency departments: national survey

Katarina E Göransson, Anna Ehrenberg, Margareta Ehnfors
Journal of Clinical Nursing 2005, 14 (9): 1067-74

AIM: This paper reports a study the aim of which was to describe how triage-related work was organized and performed in Swedish emergency departments.

BACKGROUND: Hospitals in many developed countries use some kind of system to prioritize the patients attending emergency departments. Triage is a commonly used term to refer to the process of sorting and prioritizing patients for care. How the triage procedure is organized and which personnel perform this type of work vary considerably throughout the world. In Sweden, few studies have explored this important issue.

METHOD: A national survey was conducted using telephone interviews, with nurse managers at each of the emergency departments. The sample represented 87% of emergency departments in Sweden.

RESULTS: The findings clearly illustrate the organization of emergency department triage, focusing on personnel who perform triage, as well as the facilities, resources and procedures available for triage. However, the results indicate that work associated with such triage in Sweden is not organized in any consistent matter. In 81% of the emergency departments a clerk, Licensed Practical Nurse or Registered Nurse were assigned to assess patients not arriving by ambulance. There was also diversity in other areas, including requirements for staff to have particular qualifications and clinical experience for being allocated to triage work, as well as facilities for triage personnel assessing and prioritizing patients. The use of triage scales and acuity ratings also lacked uniformity and disparities were observed in both the design and use of triage scales. A little less than half (46%) of the emergency departments did not use any kind of triage scale to document patient acuity ratings.

CONCLUSION: In contrast to several other countries, this study shows that Swedish emergency departments do not adhere well to established standards and guidelines about triage in emergency care. Research on emergency department triage, especially in the areas of personnel performing triage, triage scales and standards and guidelines are recommended.

RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE: The diversity among several aspects of nursing triage (e.g. use of less qualified personnel performing triage, the use of different triage scales) presented in the study points to a safety risk for the patients. It also shows the need of further education for the personnel in clinical practice as well as further research on triage in order to gain national consensus about this nursing task.

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