What Is a Triage Nurse?

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Written by Morganne Skinner, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nurse in blue scrubs answers the question: What is a triage nurse?

You arrive at the emergency room after stepping on a nail. You’re ushered into a small exam room where a nurse takes your vital signs, asks you many questions, and takes a look at your foot. Afterwards, you return to the lobby as you wait to see the doctor.

Who did you see? The triage nurse. They were the first healthcare provider you saw and they determined whether you were stable enough to wait in the lobby to be seen.

What is a triage nurse? What exactly do they do? And how can you become one? We’ll answer all of these questions and more in this article.

What Is Triage Nursing?

The term triage refers to the preliminary assessment of a patient to determine the acuity level and urgency of medical assistance required. It can be implemented in a multitude of settings, ranging from the emergency room to primary care clinics.

What Is a Triage Nurse?

A triage nurse is a registered nurse who conducts focused assessments to determine the medical urgency of a patient’s condition and status. As the first person to see or speak with patients or first responders, a triage nurse uses their decision-making and assessment skills, which can have a significant impact on patients’ care.

Triage Nurse vs. ER Nurse

The title triage nurse refers to the type of work a nurse does, whereas an emergency room (ER) nurse refers to the location/specialty a nurse is working in. For example, a triage nurse can implement triage skills in an emergency room, doctor’s office, or call center. An ER nurse performs a variety of skills, including but not limited to triage, but in the confines of an ER.

What Is the Difference Between a Nurse and a Triage Nurse?

A nurse works in a variety of settings and typically implements the full spectrum of the nursing process. A triage nurse spends the majority of their time assessing patients. This does not mean that triage nurses do not also provide nursing interventions or evaluations — they do. The difference here is that the triage nurse is primarily responsible for assessment.

What Does a Triage Nurse Do?

A triage nurse prioritizes patients for evaluation and intervention, which is the most important function of a triage nurse. Triage nurses are typically the first person to see or talk to a patient in a facility, so most of their work focuses on gathering information. Depending on where a triage nurse works, this can look radically different. But what is a triage nurse actually doing?

Common examples of triage nurse duties include:

  • Obtain vital signs
  • Perform patient assessments
  • Initiate emergency interventions when needed
  • Communicate patient status to doctors and nurses
  • Sort patients into priority groups following facility guidelines
  • Educate patients and family members

Considering these nurses are the very first to assess patients, their knowledge of emergencies and life-threatening conditions are imperative to ensuring that the right level of care is provided to every patient.

Where Do Triage Nurses Work?

Triage nurses typically work in acute care settings, such as the emergency department or urgent care. They can also work for doctors’ offices, insurance companies, or call centers.

Some positions allow triage nurses to work remotely, such as those at call centers. Remote triage nursing focuses on assessment, such as medical history screening, whereas a triage nurse in the emergency room will be more hands on.

What Is a Triage Nurse Called?

The exact title for this role will vary depending on where it is located. A triage nurse in the emergency room may be called an ER nurse. A triage nurse working for a call center may be called a telephone triage nurse or advice nurse.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Triage Nurse?

It takes about four years to become a triage nurse. This can vary depending on how long it takes for you to become an RN and whether or not nursing experience is required for your job.

Generally speaking, having a few years of nursing experience, especially in acute care, is preferred. As a triage nurse, you are making important decisions for patients very quickly. It’s extremely beneficial to have a wider range of clinical experiences to draw upon in this role.

How to Become a Triage Nurse: Education Requirements

In order to work as a triage nurse, you need to have an active nursing license. You will also need to have a few certifications: Basic life support (BLS) is a must. Advanced cardiovascular life support (ACLS) and pediatric advanced life support (PALS) may be required, depending on your specific role. A trauma nursing core course (TNCC) certification may also be required or recommended, particularly for those working in the emergency room.

How Much Do Triage Nurses Make?

The Bureau for Labor Statistics does not report on the salary for triage nurses, but they report the average registered nurse salary is $89,010 per year. The average telephone triage nurse salary is $84,010 per year, but do note that not all triage nurses perform their work over the phone.

The average emergency room nurse salary is $75,944 per year. Depending on where you choose to work as a triage nurse, the degree and experience level you have, and the location you work in, your salary might be different.

Get Involved in Triage Today

You’ve asked us, What is a triage nurse? — and we answered. Are you ready to become one? IntelyCare can help you gain valuable clinical experience. Learn how you can create a flexible nursing schedule today.