Telephone triage is a system by which operators at medical hot lines analyze information provided by callers and make suggestions for forms of medical assistance that may be needed. This is somewhat similar to standard forms of triage in which patient priority for treatment is assessed based on medical needs. Rather than evaluate which patients are most in need, however, this type of triage is used to evaluate the severity of the symptoms reported by a caller, and then provide recommendation on how to proceed with medical care. Telephone triage is often the subject of criticism and debate, however, since the operators are not necessarily trained medical professionals.
While telephone triage is fairly similar to standard triage in some respects, there are also major differences between the two systems. Triage, in general, is a methodology in which patients in a hospital or at the scene of an emergency are evaluated and assigned priority for medical assistance and care. This is typically done based on the severity of illnesses or injuries that individuals have received. Telephone triage, on the other hand, is used to analyze symptoms or descriptions of conditions described by a caller over the phone to an operator, and then make a recommendation for action.
This type of telephone triage is often used by operators of medical hot lines, which people can call for medical advice or assistance. Callers typically provide a description of the symptoms they have or the nature of a particular injury that has been sustained. Using this information, an operator then provides the caller with a recommendation as to what type of action he or she should take for further medical assistance.
Standard triage practices usually result in four priorities for patients: deceased, immediate care needed, delayed care required, or minor injuries that are not a priority. Telephone triage also typically results in four possible recommendations for those who call in, depending on the information provided by the caller. An operator on a medical assistance hot line can recommend methods for self-care at home, make a referral to a primary care physician, refer the caller to a specialist, or make a referral to an emergency care facility.
There is some controversy over the use of telephone triage, however, for a number of reasons. The operators at these hot lines are not necessarily trained medical professionals and may simply be following a script or basic guidelines for medical assistance. Since people are calling for medical advice, however, the suggestions made can potentially be seen as providing diagnosis and suggested treatment. As such, the use of telephone triage by untrained medical personnel may be illegal in some areas, and has been challenged on legal grounds.