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Triage: A Comprehensive Guide for Healthcare Professionals

This article was written in collaboration with Christine T. and ChatGPT, our little helper developed by OpenAI.

Triage: A Comprehensive Guide for Healthcare Professionals


Triage is a process used in healthcare settings to prioritize patients’ treatment based on the severity of their conditions and the availability of resources. The primary goal of triage is to ensure that patients receive timely, appropriate care, maximizing positive outcomes and minimizing potential harm.

Related Terms

  • Emergency Medical Services (EMS): A system that provides urgent pre-hospital care and transportation for patients with illnesses or injuries.
  • Emergency Department (ED): A specialized hospital department designed to provide rapid, comprehensive care for patients with acute illnesses or injuries.
  • Disaster Triage: A form of triage used during mass casualty incidents or disasters when resources are limited and large numbers of patients require care.

Synonyms, Definitions, and Examples

Synonym Definition Example
Sorting A process of categorizing patients based on the urgency of their medical needs. During a mass casualty incident, healthcare professionals must quickly sort patients to determine who requires immediate attention.
Prioritization Establishing the order in which patients should be treated based on the severity of their conditions. In the emergency department, nurses prioritize patients to ensure that those with the most critical needs are treated first.
Screening An initial assessment to determine a patient’s condition and the urgency of their medical needs. When a patient arrives at the ED, a nurse performs a screening to assign a triage level and prioritize their care.

Assessment Techniques and Tools

Triage assessment techniques and tools vary depending on the healthcare setting and the population being served. Common tools include:

  • The Emergency Severity Index (ESI): A five-level triage system used in emergency departments to prioritize patient care based on the severity of their conditions and expected resource needs.
  • The Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START) system: A method used by EMS providers and first responders during mass casualty incidents to quickly assess and categorize patients.
  • The Canadian Triage and Acuity Scale (CTAS): A tool used in Canadian emergency departments to determine patient acuity and prioritize care.

Assessment Frameworks

Various assessment frameworks can be used to guide triage decision-making, including:

  • The ABCDE approach: A systematic method for assessing patients based on Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, and Exposure/Environment.
  • The primary and secondary survey: A comprehensive assessment framework used in trauma care, which involves a primary survey to identify and manage life-threatening conditions, followed by a secondary survey to evaluate other injuries and issues.
  • Mass casualty incident (MCI) protocols: Guidelines for the management and triage of patients during large-scale emergencies, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or transportation accidents.

Assessment Documentation

Accurate and thorough documentation is crucial during the triage process. Healthcare professionals should record:

  • Time and date of the triage assessment
  • Patient demographic information
  • Chief complaint or reason for seeking care
  • Vital signs and physical examination findings
  • Triage level assigned and rationale for the decision
  • Interventions performed during triage, if any

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Triage involves making critical decisions that can have significant consequences for patients. Healthcare professionals must adhere to legal and ethical guidelines, including:

  • Ensuring fairness and impartiality in decision-making, without discrimination based on factors such as age, race, or socioeconomic status.
  • Upholding patient privacy and confidentiality as required by law and professional standards.
  • Communicating effectively with patients and families, providing clear explanations of triage decisions and addressing concerns.
  • Maintaining competency in triage principles and techniques through ongoing education and training.

Real-Life Examples or Case Studies

Examples of triage in real-life situations include:

  • During natural disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, healthcare professionals may need to triage large numbers of patients with varying degrees of injury.
  • In emergency departments, nurses routinely triage patients to ensure that those with the most critical needs receive timely care, while those with less severe conditions wait for appropriate resources to become available.
  • Following a major traffic accident, first responders must quickly assess and prioritize patients for transport to nearby hospitals, based on their conditions and the available resources.

Resources and References

For more information on triage and related topics, consider the following resources:

  • Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) – Offers educational resources, guidelines, and certification opportunities for emergency nursing professionals.
  • American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) – Provides resources, advocacy, and education for emergency medicine professionals.
  • World Health Organization (WHO) – Offers guidelines and resources related to emergency and disaster management, including triage principles.


Triage is a critical component of healthcare delivery, ensuring that patients receive appropriate care based on the severity of their conditions and the availability of resources. By understanding the principles, techniques, and legal and ethical considerations involved in triage, healthcare professionals can contribute to improved patient outcomes and more efficient healthcare systems.