How to Become a Triage Nurse

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Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States seek emergency healthcare services. Because each patient’s needs are unique, health care providers must have an individual in place to direct patients to the care professional best equipped to treat them. This is where triage nurses come into play.

In a hospital setting, not only do triage nurses perform the initial assessment of the patient and direct them to the right treatment resources, they’re also in charge of where the patient is placed in the hospital’s queue. The important work that triage nurses perform ensures patient waiting times are kept to a minimum, while maximizing the efficiency of hospital resources. Many healthcare organizations also employ phone triage nurses, who can help patients determine whether they need to seek emergency care, schedule a doctor’s visit, or conduct self-care at home.

So how do you become a triage nurse? What are the day-to-day responsibilities of the role? And what skills do you need to be successful? As with most positions in the healthcare field, the path to becoming a triage nurse begins with education and a desire to care for people in need.

Two triage nurses are standing outside the entrance to a hospital emergency room.

Triage Nurse Job Description

Triage nurses are often the first contact someone has when they arrive at a hospital in need of emergency care. Much of what these professionals do can be deduced from the word “triage,” which is defined as the sorting of and allocation of treatment to patients. However, the triage process is highly nuanced and requires significant experience and expertise in patient assessment and communication.

A triage nurse is responsible for:

  • Performing the initial patient assessment upon their arrival in the ER, which includes conducting a physical examination and interviewing the patient using a line of questioning intended to deduce the severity of the patient’s condition
  • Assessing patients via phone or video chat (if a telephone triage nurse), which requires a different system of arranging healthcare services since it’s done remotely
  • Using the hospital’s database to enter and review patient information to help them make their assessments
  • Organizing and arranging patient care by the severity of the patient’s illness or injury, and overseeing the referral of the patient to the correct provider for treatment
  • Finding ways to reduce patient wait times and optimizing the hospital’s patient queue
  • Periodically reassessing patients who have been in the waiting queue for an extended period of time
  • Providing immediate care if the patient has a severe or life-threatening condition

Steps to Become a Triage Nurse

As with all positions in the healthcare field, the path to becoming a triage nurse starts with education. Emergency room triage nurses need to be registered nurses (RNs), which requires earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or a nursing diploma. Some entry-level telephone triage positions may be open to licensed vocational nurses/licensed practical nurses (LVN/LPNs), which requires a nursing certificate or diploma.

The next step is to pass the NCLEX-RN exam, a standardized test administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. This allows a nurse to obtain a license to practice in their state as an RN. (LVN/LPNs must take the NCLEX-PN exam.)

While nurses don’t have to earn a BSN to become an RN, many hospitals prefer to hire triage nurses with a BSN, in addition to several years of RN experience and certain life support certifications. Additionally, earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can help professionals gain the knowledge and skills needed to excel in this career, especially if they want to move into leadership roles.

Triage nurses may also benefit from earning optional certifications. For instance, once a nurse has logged 2,000 hours of work experience in a clinical or hospital setting, they become eligible to take the Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification (AMB-BC) exam offered by the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing. This board certification signifies that they have the requisite entry-level skills to deliver ambulatory care as a triage nurse.

Triage Nurse Skills

Triage nurses are unique in that they facilitate the healthcare process but don’t deliver healthcare except in cases of emergency. Due to the nature of the position, the desired skills of a triage nurse are focused on their ability to assess and refer patients to the correct provider in the hospital. Triage nurses should have the following skills to be successful in their role:

  • Communication: A large part of what triage nurses do is communicate with patients. This involves asking pertinent questions about the injury/illness and gathering as much information as quickly as possible. In the case of telephone triage nurses, communication is especially important because they can’t visually assess the patient.
  • Assessment: The end goal for a triage nurse is to determine the severity of the patient’s injury or illness and get them to the correct provider for treatment. A triage nurse needs to be able to accurately assess what a patient is experiencing, which can be challenging if the patient is unable to accurately convey their symptoms. Assessing children, for instance, can be especially difficult.
  • Quick thinking and decision-making: Triage nurses work in an environment where time is not on their side. In some cases, very little time is available for assessment and/or overcoming communication barriers due to the severity of the patient’s illness or injury. In such cases, the triage nurse will have to rely on their experience and sound judgment to determine the best course of treatment for the patient.

Triage Nurse Job Setting

Triage nurses work in two settings: in person in hospitals, and remotely in call centers. In hospitals, triage nurses typically have a dedicated area or private room where they can meet with and assess patients. The advantage of in-person evaluation is that the triage nurse can visually assess the patient, which helps expedite the process.

The assessment process for triage nurses working remotely in call centers can be more challenging because they rely solely on verbal communication. Telephone triage nurses follow guidelines such as the Schmitt-Thompson protocol during their line of questioning to account for what they can’t see with their own eyes. This helps them determine the appropriate level of care and get the patient treated.

Learn More About Becoming a Triage Nurse

Whether working face-to-face with patients or remotely, triage nurses play a critical role in assessing patients and helping them to receive prompt and appropriate emergency medical care for their injury or illness. Emergency care services operate smoothly and efficiently due to the important work these nurses perform.

The first step in becoming a triage nurse is pursuing an education. Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Nursing prepares aspiring triage nurses with the skills and education they need to make an impact in the field of nursing. Courses such as Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing, Health Care Policy, and Health Promotion/Disease Prevention will all serve as important steppingstones in your development as a nurse.

Start your journey toward becoming a triage nurse today at Maryville University. 

Recommended Reading

Nursing Career Advancement

The Role of Nurse Managers and Nurse Leaders

What Can You Do with an MSN?

Sources

American Nurses Credentialing Center, Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification (AMB-BC™)

Chron, “The Job Description of a Telephone Triage Nurse”

EveryNurse, Telephone Triage Nurse

Indeed, What Is a Triage Nurse?

Johnson & Johnson Nursing, Telephone Triage Nurse

NCSBN, NCLEX & Other Exams

Schmitt-Thompson Clinical Content, The Guidelines

Turkish Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Nurse Triage in Tertiary Care Emergency Departments”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses