Objective: Telephone triage in patients requesting help may compromise patient safety, particularly if urgency is underestimated and the patient is not seen by a physician. The aim was to assess the research evidence on safety of telephone triage in out-of-hours primary care.
Methods: A systematic review was performed of published research on telephone triage in out-of-hours care, searching in PubMed and EMBASE up to March 2010. Studies were included if they concerned out-of-hours medical care and focused on telephone triage in patients with a first request for help. Study inclusion and data extraction were performed by two researchers independently. Post-hoc two types of studies were distinguished: observational studies in contacts with real patients (unselected and highly urgent contacts), and prospective observational studies using high-risk simulated patients (with a highly urgent health problem).
Results: Thirteen observational studies showed that on average triage was safe in 97% (95% CI 96.5-97.4%) of all patients contacting out-of-hours care and in 89% (95% CI 86.7-90.2%) of patients with high urgency. Ten studies that used high-risk simulated patients showed that on average 46% (95% CI 42.7-49.8%) were safe. Adverse events described in the studies included mortality (n = 6 studies), hospitalisations (n = 5), attendance at emergency department (n=1), and medical errors (n = 6).
Conclusions: There is room for improvement in safety of telephone triage in patients who present symptoms that are high risk. As these have a low incidence, recognition of these calls poses a challenge to health care providers in daily practice.