Safety of telephone triage in general practitioner cooperatives: do triage nurses correctly estimate urgency?

Paul Giesen, Rosa Ferwerda, Roelie Tijssen, Henk Mokkink, Roeland Drijver, Wil van den Bosch, Richard Grol
Quality & Safety in Health Care 2007, 16 (3): 181-4

BACKGROUND: In recent years, there has been a growth in the use of triage nurses to decrease general practitioner (GP) workloads and increase the efficiency of telephone triage. The actual safety of decisions made by triage nurses has not yet been assessed.

OBJECTIVES: To investigate whether triage nurses accurately estimate the urgency level of health complaints when using the national telephone guidelines, and to examine the relationship between the performance of triage nurses and their education and training.

METHOD: A cross-sectional, multicentre, observational study employing five mystery (simulated) patients who telephoned triage nurses in four GP cooperatives. The mystery patients played standardised roles. Each role had one of four urgency levels as determined by experts. The triage nurses called were asked to estimate the level of urgency after the contact. This level of urgency was compared with a gold standard.

RESULTS: Triage nurses estimated the level of urgency of 69% of the 352 contacts correctly and underestimated the level of urgency of 19% of the contacts. The sensitivity and specificity of the urgency estimates provided by the triage nurses were found to be 0.76 and 0.95, respectively. The positive and negative predictive values of the urgency estimates were 0.83 and 0.93, respectively. A significant correlation was found between correct estimation of urgency and specific training on the use of the guidelines. The educational background (primary or secondary care) of the nurses had no significant relationship with the rate of underestimation.

CONCLUSION: Telephone triage by triage nurses is efficient but possibly not safe, with potentially severe consequences for the patient. An educational programme for triage nurses is recommended. Also, a direct second safety check of all cases by a specially trained GP telephone doctor is advisable.

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