Study objective: We sought to determine whether knowledge of vital signs changes nurse triage designations (TDs). We also sought to determine whether patient age and ability to communicate modify the effect of vital signs on triage decisions.
Methods: We performed a prospective observational study, in 24 emergency departments, of nurse-assigned TDs of all ED patients undergoing triage. Nurses performed their typical triage routine, except that they chose 1 of 5 hypothetical TDs (call 911, ED <2 hours, physician's office 2 to 8 hours, physician's office 8 to 24 hours, or home care) before and after measurement of vital signs. The main outcome measure was the change of TD after knowledge of a patient's vital signs, with stratification on the basis of patient age and communication barriers. The secondary outcome was the final ED disposition.
Results: Six hundred twenty-five experienced triage nurses at 24 different EDs collected data on 14,285 patients. TDs were downgraded (decreased in urgency) in 2.4% of patients, and 5.5% were upgraded (increased in urgency) after vital signs were known. Changes were more likely to occur in the young (< or = 2 years old; 11.4%) and the elderly (> or = 75 years old; 9.9%) than in those 3 to 74 years of age (7.5%). When nurses reported a communication barrier, a change in post-vital signs TD was also more common (11.2% versus 7.7%). The post-vital signs TD better predicted patient ED disposition.
Conclusion: In this sample, 92.1% of the nurses' TDs were not affected by the knowledge of patient vital signs. For the other 7.9%, including many patients from vulnerable populations, the vital signs changed the nurses' assessments of the patients' triage designation. Methods of triage that do not determine vital signs may not adequately reflect the urgency of the patient's presentation.