Nursing Career Path: ER Triage Nurse

Nursing Career Path: ER Triage Nurse

Triage nurses are vital personnel in every emergency health care setting. These nurses are the ones who identify critically ill patients and prioritize who gets treated first based on the severity of their condition.

Nursing as a general profession is growing rapidly (the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 7% growth by 2029), and in the COVID-19 era, triage nurses are more important than ever. Here’s what you need to know about becoming and getting a job as a triage nurse.

What Does a Triage Nurse Do?

Triage nurses are essential for keeping the emergency room operating as smoothly as possible. A triage nurse saves lives by quickly assessing a patient’s clinical condition and appropriately responding to their immediate needs. 

Triage nurses are responsible for:

  • Prioritizing patient care
  • Taking the patient’s personal information and medical history
  • Taking vital signs and assessing the patient’s status
  • Administering applicable medical treatments
  • Closely monitoring the patient’s condition
  • Updating electronic medical records to reflect the patient’s condition, course of treatment, and medications
  • Working closely with other health care professionals.

Triage nursing also requires you to remain calm under pressure, make decisive decisions, and act quickly to make sure patients are prioritized. They must be able to evaluate and collect patient symptoms as quickly as possible, so patients can be processed correctly and sent to the right doctor as soon as possible. 

All of these responsibilities require individuals who are skilled, knowledgeable, and prepared to make difficult decisions fast. 

Where Do They Work?

While triage nurses usually work in person as part of the health care teams in hospital emergency rooms, the options for work settings have expanded. 

With the rise of telehealth, triage nurses can work to assess patients remotely, either over the phone and via video conferencing software. Additionally, because more of the population is gaining access to health care and the number of active COVID-19 cases grows daily, the need for triage nurses working in this non-traditional setting is only expected to increase.

Telehealth triage nurses do almost everything they would do if they were in person with the patient, including assessing symptoms, answering questions, and advising patients about the type of care they need. Once their assessment is complete, telehealth triage nurses refer their patients to either the emergency room or an urgent care clinic.

Working in triage requires a nurse to be ready to act quickly in a rapidly evolving environment so they can help organize chaotic situations in a medical emergency. Individuals must be fast on their feet and ready to solve problems with life or death consequences.

Triage Nursing During COVID-19

While triage nurses have always played an essential part in the success of every emergency room, the importance of triage nursing has risen with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As noted by the University of South Carolina, the coronavirus is affecting virtually every aspect of nursing, including educators, nursing students, licensed nurses, and even retired nurses.

With the increased onslaught of patients being admitted into hospitals, triage nurses now more than ever need to determine which patients need the most intense levels of care, including which patients need access to in-demand, vital equipment like ventilators.

In addition to the drastic increase in patients being hospitalized, the pandemic has presented another unique challenge for triage nurses: to humanize health care while juggling their increased patient load. 

With personal protective equipment (PPE), many nurses have struggled to connect on a personal level with their patients. Albeit necessary to avoid spreading the virus to a vulnerable populace, this difficulty can impact a patient’s trust in nurses, doctors, and the entire health care industry.

How to Become a Triage Nurse

Triage nursing is a demanding, highly-skilled position. To become a triage nurse, you’ll need to do the following steps.

1. Attend Nursing School

To be qualified as a triage nurse, you’ll need to be a licensed registered nurse. This means completing a nursing degree program with an accredited school, which is normally a certificate or associate’s degree-level program.

However, there are many programs available now that will help students earn their nursing degree as well as their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Nurses who have completed a BSN degree program are considered much more attractive candidates to hospitals hiring nurses and can also help you qualify for a higher salary.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN

Once you’ve completed an accredited program, you can sit for your NCLEX-RN licensing exam to earn your registered nurse license, which allows you to practice nursing in a variety of health care facilities in the state you reside.

3. Gain Practical Experience

Before becoming a triage nurse, you’ll need to gain practical experience, typically a minimum of two years.

Most of a nurse’s experience should come from working in the emergency room or intensive care unit (ICU) to be prepared for the types of medical emergencies and illnesses they’ll have to manage as a triage nurse.

4. Earn Your Certification

Because you never know what sort of case will come through the door, nurses in this field need to have a variety of specialized knowledge, practical skills, and competencies. 

One such potentially useful certification is the Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification to Registered Nurse-Board Certified (RN-BC), which is offered by the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing.  

This exam is designed to assess the clinical knowledge and skills of registered nurses at an entry-level in the ambulatory care specialty. The certification that you get from successfully completing the course is valid for five years. 

To be allowed to sit for the certification exam, candidates are required to complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience. And while being a registered nurse will qualify you to work as a triage nurse, earning your Ambulatory Care Nursing Certificate shows you’re a specialist in emergency care.

How to Get Hired as a Triage Nurse

Many hospitals and other urgent care settings hire triage nurses as a part-time or full-time position. Like many companies, many hospitals may prefer to hire from within, so even if a job isn’t open yet, if you can find and successfully apply for a job at that same hospital in a relevant position, then you’re better positioned to apply when a triage nursing opening comes available.

Another option is picking up per diem emergency room shifts, as hospitals need to expand their staff, especially during COVID-19. Not only does this give you great experience for your resume to show prospective employers that you can do the job, but you have the opportunity to build important relationships and connections that might just land you a position.

You can find and book per diem shifts for nursing and other health care professions using Clipboard Health. Sign up today and start scheduling shifts that work for your schedule.

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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