The Role of Patients’ Stories in Emergency Medicine Triage

Document Type


Publication Date


Digital Object Identifier (DOI)



Emergency medicine is a communicative activity, and characteristics such as incomplete information, time pressure, and the potentially serious consequences of errors complicate effective communication and decision making. The present study examined the triage process as an interpretive activity driven in part by the patient’s story. Of four identified communication processes in the emergency department (ED), the “handoff” of patients between shifts has been identified as especially problematic since missing contextual details from patients’ stories increased the probability of errors. The problematic nature of patient handoffs led to our interest in triage, the initial site of interpretation and decision making. Triage distinguishes patients with emergent medical conditions requiring immediate care from those who can more safely wait for medical attention. We report results from 110 hours of observing the triage process and semistructured interviews with 16 triage nurses in a Level I Trauma Center in an urban teaching hospital in the southeastern United States. Field notes and interview transcripts were analyzed and coded to explore decision rules and information sources used in triage decision making. Triage nurses generally discounted patients’ stories in favor of information from visual cues and vital signs. Patients’ stories tended to influence the triage process only in certain cases when the story contained information that was not readily apparent, such as a recent organ transplant. Triage nurses’ reliance on “gut feeling,” however, might be a kind of narrative sense-making that combines observable and measurable clinical facts with the narrative competence to utilize intuition and past experience.

Was this content written or created while at USF?


Citation / Publisher Attribution

Health Communication, v. 31, no. 9, p. 1155-1164.