Study objective: To determine whether nonemergency patients can be prospectively identified by triage nurses and safely triaged out of the emergency department without treatment.
Methods: All adult patients (16 years or older) who presented to a university ED were provided an evaluation by a triage nurse. For a patient's case to be defined as nonemergency, four criteria were required: vital signs within a specific range, presence of 1 of 50 potentially nonemergent chief complaints, absence of key indicators found on screening examination, and absence of chest pain, abdominal pain, any severe pain, and inability to walk. Between July 1988 and July 1993, patients who satisfied these criteria were defined as nonemergency, refused care in the ED, and triaged out of the ED. Patients were referred to off-site clinics. The clinics had agreed to see patients in advance of the study, and the referral lists were frequently updated. Outcome data were obtained by telephone surveys to both triaged individuals and other health care providers.
Results: In this 5-year study, 176,074 adults presented to the ambulatory triage area in the ED, and 31,165 (18%) were defined as nonemergency, were not treated, and were referred elsewhere. Letters and telephone calls to all referral clinics, eight local EDs, and the coroner's office identified no instances of gross mistriage and only a small number of insignificant adverse outcomes. Telephone follow-up to individuals triaged away was successful in 34% of calls and showed that 39% of persons received care elsewhere on the same day, 35% received care within 3 days, and 26% decided not to seek medical care. A group of 1.0% sought care at other hospital EDs for minor complaints.
Conclusion: A subset of patients with nonemergency problems can be prospectively identified and triaged out of the ED without significant adverse outcomes provided there is community support for follow-up care.