What Is a Triage Nurse and What Do They Do?

Triage nurse standing in front of a tent for checking patients
Written by
Lori Fuqua
December 5, 2023

Table of Contents

Have you been working in a hospital and hearing about triage nurses? Or maybe you heard about Nursa’s partnership with the American Red Cross for disaster response, and you’re researching how you could be involved. Regardless, you’ve landed in the right place. In this article, we’ll hit all these triage high points: what triage means, what triage nurses do, where triage nurses work, why triage is essential, which are two main triage methods, and more.

What Is Triage?

Triage nurse standing in the emergency department.

First, let’s cut straight to the subject and define triage. According to Oxford Languages, triage is “the preliminary assessment of patients or casualties in order to determine the urgency of their need for treatment and the nature of treatment required.” We know assessments are the bread and butter of a nurse’s skill set in any setting. Still, triage is different because it is a type of assessment specifically to evaluate the urgency of a patient’s condition.

What Does Triaging Mean?

Triage can be both a noun and a verb. We’re not trying to confuse you with grammar lessons here, so we’ll be quick. The following are example statements to clarify the meaning of triage:

  • Triage, used as a noun, is the assessment: Two registered nurses are in charge of triage for all emergency department walk-ins for this shift.
  • Triage, used as a verb, is the action of performing the assessment: The nurses not triaging patients will be assigned other tasks.

What Settings Have Triage Staffing?

You’re most likely to find triage nurses in three settings: disaster relief, emergency response, and emergency departments.

  • Disaster response teams respond to all sorts of crises and disasters. While these teams include people from various professions depending on the type of crisis, nursing triage is essential to organize and establish order in the wake of a chaotic situation.
  • Emergency response personnel such as paramedics and EMTs perform triage to prioritize care when more than one person is involved or injured and inform the hospital what to prepare for while en route.
  • When patients walk into nearly any hospital's emergency department (ED), a triage nurse will evaluate and prioritize patient care.

Why Is Triage Important?

Hospital EDs receive patients with various conditions, complaints, and illnesses. When making an appointment to see the doctor isn’t an option, the ED is often the next choice for medical care, regardless of the issue. The result is a mix of people with varying degrees of severity and urgency for their situations, which in turn leads to overcrowded EDs. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2021, there were 139.8 million ED visits, of which 18.3 million (13.1 percent) turned into hospital admissions, and 2.8 million resulted in transfers to a critical care unit. 

According to the authors of the journal Emergency Department Triage, “There are various triage systems implemented around the world, but the universal goal of triage is to supply effective and prioritized care to patients while optimizing resource usage and timing.” 

Do Triage Nurses Like Their Jobs?

No one wants to be miserable at their job, and the ED gets a bad reputation for being overcrowded and busy, so this is a fair question. There’s no firm yes or no answer to it, but research has produced some valuable insights. In October 2022, a mixed-method study in Slovakia examined triage nurse job satisfaction and found a link between higher professional capability and job satisfaction. The bottom line is that the need to triage accurately is a heavy responsibility that is easier to bear confidently with knowledge and experience. 

In February of 2023, a study in the Journal of Emergency concluded, “There was no significant difference in burnout when comparing emergency nurses with other nurses. However, we identified that insufficient staffing, physical demands, patient population, better pay elsewhere, career advancement, length of commute, and relocation were significantly endorsed more in emergency nurses than all other nurses for job turnover reasons.” 

Types of Triage Assessments

Different types of triage assessments are used across the US; ultimately, the method of triage you must use depends on the setting and the policies in place where you work. Here, we’ll summarize two of the more widely used methods: the ESI and the START.

Emergency Severity Index (ESI)

According to the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA), around 94 percent of hospitals in the US implement the ESI. This triage method evaluates acuity and hospital resources required for patients. It assigns them to one of five levels, with level one meaning the patient requires immediate life-saving intervention and level five meaning the patient’s condition is the least urgent.

Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START)

This triage assessment system is often used in the case of mass casualty incidents and assigns priority for collection. This triage method utilizes color coding: black, red, yellow, and green. Black is assigned to those already dead, red to those with severe injuries requiring immediate transportation to a hospital, yellow to those with moderate injuries who can wait to be transported, and green to minor injuries with lower priority for transport.

Is There a Triage Specialty for Nurses?

To date, there is no triage specialty certification for nurses. Because triage is closely associated with emergency care, the emergency room (ER) nursing specialty is the closest. There are, however, triage training courses available from reputable nursing organizations, such as the following:

  • Telephone Triage Course as Professional Nursing Practice: The American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing (AAACN) offers this 13-module course. According to their website, nurses can earn up to 17.5 contact hours for course completion.
  • Triage Curriculum: Offered by the ENA, this curriculum has eight courses and can award up to 11.25 contact hours, according to their website. 

How Much Do ER/ED Nurses Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs nationwide earned an annual mean wage of $89,010 (mean hourly wage of $42.80) in 2022. RNs employed in general medical and surgical hospitals earned an annual mean wage of $90,600 (mean hourly wage of $43.56). 

The BLS publishes occupational wage data annually, but it does not publish wage data specific to ER/ED nurses.

triage nurse apply defib pads to patient in disaster
Triage nurses might also work in disaster response situations.

Demand for Triage Nurses

Are you an RN with triage or ED experience? Hospital emergency departments need experienced RNs who can triage and work in high-pressure environments. Search for high-paying per diem shifts at hospital EDs near you when you sign up with Nursa. There are no quotas or limits with Nursa: You choose when and where you want to work.

Lori Fuqua
Blog published on:
December 5, 2023

Lori is a contributing copywriter at Nursa who creates compelling content focusing on location highlights, nurse licensing, compliance, community, and social care.

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