How Triage Works

What to Expect During Triage

Triage differs based on the scenario you're in (battlefield, mass casualty incident, regular emergency room), but most of the time it's pretty predictable. Upon arrival in the emergency room (ER) or other urgent care setting, patients are directed to the triage nurse, who greets them and does a quick visual assessment, which is a huge part of the process. If the patient appears really ill, struggles to breathe or is unresponsive he or she will be seen more quickly by a doctor than those who are uncomfortable, but otherwise all right. Triage is also the time for the nurse to obtain necessary patient information, such as the general complaint, medical history, allergies and current medications. Basic vitals also will be collected, including temperature and blood pressure [source: Sacred Heart Healthcare System].

After all of these details are gathered, which generally takes only a few minutes, the nurse will assign a score or code to the patient. The method for this differs between hospitals, but is often a color or number-based system; Dr. Batchelor's team at Children's uses both (see sidebar). The coding system isn't necessarily static, however. A patient's level can change as they go through the process, depending on how their symptoms progress.

It's important to understand that other factors can influence how a patient is sorted. Very young children and people with a history of chronic illness, cancer and other serious issues are at greater risk for complications, so they're often put at the head of the acute care line. That's not to say that people with less urgent issues are absolutely doomed to wait hours upon hours for care. Many urgent care settings feature two "tracks" for patients – one for those who are in severe distress and another for people who can be quickly and efficiently treated, such as those dealing with minor cuts, injuries or treatable illnesses [source: Sacred Heart Healthcare System]. So even though your injury or illness isn't terribly severe, you still have the potential to be seen just as quickly as those who are in bad shape, just by a different team.

Once the triage assessment is made and the code is assigned, the emergency department uses the information to send patients back to the doctors for diagnosis, treatment and possible code change. "It's not the nurse's job to diagnose, but to see, assess and sort," says Batchelor.