What is a “triage nurse”?

You may not know it, but you have a wonderful resource at your disposal: the triage nurses at PWHC. These nurses, perhaps one of our best kept secrets, are here to help you!

What is a “triage nurse”?

Triage means “sorting out”. A telephone triage nurse is specially trained to assess problems over the phone. Telephone triage is actually a nursing specialty area. If you talk to a triage nurse you are talking to a “specialist”. It requires lots of special training, clinical and life experience to be a telephone triage nurse. Only the most experienced Registered Nurses perform triage in the general medical clinic at PWHC. Two of our triage nurses are actually certified in telephone triage.

Why talk to a triage nurse?

If you need a same day appointment a triage nurse can:

  1. Make sure you are scheduled with the right provider;
  2. Make sure you are scheduled at the right time;

    An example of this is a young man who called and was given a same day appointment for nausea and vomiting. While he was happy to have an appointment, the trouble was, his appointment was at 4:15pm. He had been sick for 2 days and by the time he was seen and lab work was completed, the clinic was about to close. He likely would have been referred to the emergency room for IV fluids. Had he spoken with a triage nurse, the nurse would have instructed him to come in immediately and he could have been taken care of in the clinic.

  3. Prevent a bad outcome because of a delay in care;
  4. If possible help you avoid treatment in the Emergency Department or a more costly walk-in clinic;
  5. If indicated direct you to an urgent care facility and make contact with that facility prior to your arrival;
  6. Make sure you are TAKEN CARE OF just like mom would!!

Why should I call at all? If I am sick, can’t I just walk in and be seen?

Certainly you can. But it is usually better if you call first. “Walk-in” or unscheduled patients are evaluated by one of the triage nurses. They are not seen on a first come- first served basis. The most urgent are evaluated first. Your wait time can be very long if there are several patients ahead of you. Calling first gives you faster access to a nurse and can even save you a trip.

Why give advice to someone who just wants an appointment?

Not everyone who feels bad needs to come to the clinic. You may not need an appointment but you need someone to help you. Sometimes it is in your best interest to stay at home in bed and take care of yourself. Who wants to get out of a warm bed, spend at least an hour at the clinic only find out that there is no “magic pixie dust” to make the symptoms go away in one day? You may just need rest and fluids. Not antibiotics. You may also be exposing yourself (or others) to other infections by going to a busy clinic during an outbreak of flu or other viral illnesses.

A perfect example of this is a young lady who made an appointment during a flu outbreak to come in for evaluation of annoying allergy symptom. They were really bothering her. She was evaluated and given over the counter medications for her allergies. Three days later she was back with flu symptoms. She may have been exposed to the flu while she was in the clinic. Her allergy symptoms probably could have been managed over the phone by a triage nurse.

What if I don’t want to come in?

Sometimes you just don’t feel like coming in and want to stay home in bed. Sometimes you are not sure if you even need to come in. A triage nurse can help you make a decision on whether or not you should come in. If the triage nurse feels it is safe for you to manage your symptoms at home, you will be given advice for self care. You will also be instructed on over the counter medications, diet, activity, and what to do about missed classes or work. Have you looked at the selection of over-the-counter cold and flu medications lately? It is not easy to select the right ones for your symptoms. A triage nurse can help. If, however, the triage nurse feels like you should be evaluated by a medical provider you will be given a time to come in. This will greatly reduce your wait time when you feel terrible.

Again, sometimes, for your safety, we feel better if we can take a quick look at you. It is very difficult to evaluate some symptoms over the phone. Skin problems or rashes are specially challenging. The triage nurse may ask you to come in so one of them can look at you.

What if I just have a question or I am concerned about a friend or roommate?

We are always happy to answer your questions or give advice. We are here for you! Just call and ask to speak to one of the triage nurses. You don’t have to give a reason if you are uncomfortable talking with the receptionist.

Common concerns or questions:

“Why are you making it so hard?; Are you trying to keep me out of the clinic?; My doctor at home would probably call in a Z-Pack for my symptoms.; What’s up with this?”

We are not trying to keep you away. Quite the opposite! You are why we are here and we like being here to help you. We have a huge demand for our services and have a very good system in place to make sure our acutely ill or injured students that call us are seen in a timely manner. We want to provide the best possible care with the least amount of complications and disruptions to you.

Some things you can do to help us help you.

  1. Talking to a triage nurse is a good thing! Don’t assume that you won’t get to come in if you are referred to a triage nurse. Don’t just hang up and call another clinic and don’t go to the emergency room with cold or flu symptoms. About 60% of the patients that the triage nurses talk to are given a same day appointment.
  2. Be available to take a call when we call you back. Our current phone system does not allow the receptionist to directly transfer you to a nurse. (But we are working on getting a new system). Make sure we have your correct contact info. Currently our calls show up as an unknown number on caller ID. Please pick up. We play a lot of “phone tag”. We want to talk to you, not your voice mail.
  3. If you haven’t heard from us within an hour please call back. We try to return every call within 30 minutes but sometimes our call volume is very high or we are dealing with an emergency in the clinic. If we cannot reach you we may have the wrong number or may not be able to leave a message. If all attempts to reach you fail, we will send an e-mail to your U of A address. It really worries us if we can’t reach you.
  4. If you have talked to a triage nurse and you do not improve or get worse, please call us back. We will get you in. We assume you are doing OK if we don’t hear back from you. Take advantage of having such great access to nurses while you are here. Let them fill in when Mom can’t. When you get out in the “real world of healthcare” you sure will miss them!