Emergency Triaging Phone Calls

Triaging patient phone calls is a challenge for any busy hospital. With limited time and information, your staff will have to make quick decisions under pressure. If this process isn’t done well, your hospital could be wasting valuable time, spending too much money, and creating unnecessary legal liabilities.

But we have good news for you: With the right training and practice, any team can master the art of telephone triage. Check out our quick guide to improve your triage protocols today.

1. Gather the Right Information

Gathering the right information upfront will help you understand the scope of the problem and gauge how serious it is in comparison to other phone calls. Once basic information is collected, the triager can move on to asking triage questions and choosing the right course of action. Here is a list of information the telephone triager should collect on any call:

  • Name and basic demographics
  • Brief medical history
  • Description of the illness
  • Chief complaint

2. Ask Relevant Questions

The most efficient triage processes are founded on knowing the right telephone triage questions to ask patients. Since information needs to be gathered as quickly as possible, it’s important to ask only the most relevant questions. The initial questions should detect whether this is a life-threatening emergency or urgent problem that needs to be addressed within a few hours. The follow-up questions should detect less urgent issues and mild symptoms that can be treated at home.

3. Confirm Understanding

After listening to the patient’s medical history, symptoms, and chief complaint, the triager should then repeat a brief synopsis back to the patient to confirm that they heard everything correctly. This will eliminate errors and ensure the caller and the triager are on the same page. Since it’s impossible to use visual cues during a phone call, there can be more room for error, so quickly verifying the information will help the triage process go more smoothly.

4. Practice Telephone Triage Scenarios

Triaging patient phone calls can only be perfected with practice and experience. Help your newest triagers improve their skills by practicing telephone triage scenarios before they get on the line with real patients. Choose a range of scenarios, and go over the possible outcomes of each call. This practice will help your triage team be more confident and composed when they need to make decisions in real time.

5. Use Verbal Cues

Though talking on the phone does not allow you to gauge visual cues, you can use verbal cues to help make triage decisions. Listen closely to the caller’s tone of voice, level of concern, and level of anxiety while they speak. These are all important contextual clues that should determine the level of urgency in any given situation. Callers will feel more secure if you take their concerns seriously, even if their symptoms don’t seem to indicate an urgent problem. 

6. When in Doubt, See the Patient

Triaging questions are used to determine whether or not a patient needs to be seen by a doctor, and to determine how urgently they need to be seen. But triage questions are not completely fool-proof, and there may be situations when the triager isn’t sure how to proceed, even after thoroughly asking questions and listening to responses. In these circumstances, it’s always best to see the patient. You don’t want to be held accountable for turning a patient away if they had a severe problem.

7. Give Instructions for Call-Backs

If the patient’s symptoms aren’t serious enough to be seen by the doctor, they should always be encouraged to call back if the condition gets worse. But sometimes patients aren’t sure when is the right time to call back, so make sure to give detailed instructions to guide them. If the triage call line is extremely busy, there may also be circumstances when the triager needs to call the patient back to get more information. In this case, be sure to give the patient a loose timeline and phone number to look out for.

8. Use a Medical Call Center

If your hospital is having trouble keeping up with the pace of phone calls, it may be time to hire a  medical call center. This will ensure you have the bandwidth to thoroughly speak with all callers and reduce the chance of triage error. Shop around for a medical call center that aligns with the values of your institution and upholds your high standards.

Implementing These Tips

Implementing these tips will improve your triage protocols and raise the levels of patient satisfaction. Remember that learning how to triage takes time and practice, and every staff member can benefit from regular training.