Keep Calm and Carry On: Understanding the Role and Characteristics of a Triage Nurse

Understanding the Role and Characteristics of a Triage Nurse

Being a triage nurse is not for the faint-hearted! It can be stressful job but rewarding all the same. Read on if you’re considering this as a career…

Remember when you were a child and your parents and your teachers asked you the age-old question?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Children come up with some interesting answers to that question. Teacher, princess, firefighter, police officer, ballerina, and of course, nurse.

Whether you’ve always dreamed of a nursing career, or you’re just now exploring the possibilities, consider working as a triage nurse.

Maybe you’ve never heard of triage nursing. Or perhaps you never thought of yourself as qualified for work in an emergency room.

We know you have questions and we’ve put together some of the answers. Who knows, maybe after you read this article, you’ll discover your new career.

Have You Ever Met a Triage Nurse?

If you’ve ever visited the emergency department of a hospital you’ve talked with a nurse for at least a few minutes.

Whether your visit was because you tripped over your dog’s toy and twisted your ankle or because you spent an entire weekend with severe stomach pain, a nurse evaluated your condition. Of course first, you checked in with a registration clerk, who took your name and other identifying information.

But a nurse assessed you and decided on the next step in your medical care.

The nurse took your vital signs, looked at your injury or illness, asked you about your symptoms and determined whether you could wait, or needed immediate assistance.

At that point, you either went out to the waiting area or you were taken to a bed in the emergency department.

Triage nurses act as a gatekeeper for the emergency room. They sort patients according to the severity of their medical condition.

Imagine if you were having a heart attack and the person coming in behind you had a sprained ankle. What if the person with sprained ankle got to see a doctor immediately but you were sent to sit in a chair in the lobby? It’s not difficult to imagine the dire consequences, is it?

Without a gatekeeper, that’s what would happen in every emergency department. And it’s why hospitals have these special nurses on staff. They ensure each patient receives timely care based on the severity of their medical condition.

Let’s take a look at what a typical shift looks like when you have this type of nursing job.

A Day in the Life

It may sound like triage nurses only check temperature, pulse, and respiration and then move patients through to the next station. They do so much more than TPRs and writing notes on a patient’s chart.

This is what the triage nursing process looks like from the moment you first speak with your patient:

  • Assess patient
  • Prioritize patient
  • Communicate patient status with ER staff
  • Transport patient to the treatment area
  • Provide immediate medical treatment if necessary
  • Educate patients

In this position nurses also re-assess patients and communicate updates on wait times, etc. In situations when a patient’s condition is life-threatening, Triage Nurses also provide immediate medical treatment.

One thing is certain—you won’t get bored.

If you’re looking for something other than the daily grind, this may be the perfect nursing career for you. There is no such thing as a typical day in the life a triage nurse.

Some days you’ll see nothing but broken limbs and people who have influenza. Other days you’ll have patients with heart attack symptoms, knife wounds, and foreign objects in their eye.

Never knowing who will come through the door is one aspect of the job most nurses enjoy but it also creates unique challenges.

Challenges of the Triage Nurse

All nurses face challenges typical to the position. This type of job comes with its own challenges that other nurses don’t face every day.

When you’re the first contact in an emergency room, how you meet challenges means the difference between life and death for your patients.

Sometimes the job is high pressure. Because you determine the severity of a patient’s condition, you must think clearly under pressure. If you send a patient who’s had a stroke back to the waiting area, that patient will not have a good outcome.

Since the emergency room is where accident victims, patients having heart attacks, and people with gunshot wounds come for care, you’ll see things the average person can’t handle emotionally.

Triage nursing means working long hours, many of them on your feet. The job can also be emotionally draining.

Some days you may do the work of more than one person. Emergency departments aren’t always fully staffed.

The hospital can’t know how many people will come through the doors in any given day. The hospital also can’t plan for staff call-outs. This means you may do double duty.

The challenges are offset by the reward of helping sick people get the treatment they need and knowing you contributed something positive to those people.

If this short list doesn’t intimidate you, continue reading and learn what qualifications are necessary for the job.


Before you can apply for a nursing position in any hospital you must complete a formal training program.

Nurses training includes completion of a Bachelor’s level education program. You’ll also register with the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland (NMBI).

After registering with NMBI and finishing your educational program, you may also need practical nursing experience.

Nursing education takes time and dedication but like most careers, it’s a requirement for any nursing position. After graduating from a formal nurse’s training, you may also complete a triage education course.

Completion of the formal degree and specialization course prepares you by teaching theory. You also get supervised clinical experience taking care of patients.

Those two pieces of training are essential but most of the qualifications you’ll need for success in this field come from on-the-job learning. Others are part of your inner character.

Requirements of the Job

Nurses care. They care for and about their patients. Nurses who don’t truly care about others usually don’t last long in the field.

Nurses interact with people who are sick, scared, and at times unpleasant. Having compassion for people who are probably not at their best is one of the most critical qualities.

Communication skills are also at the top of the list of requirements for a nurse’s job.

You communicate with patients and their families. Nurses talk with patients about their symptoms, their diagnosis, and their treatment. But you don’t just deliver information to them, you’re their advocate.

You also communicate with your medical team. That means giving and receiving information from other nurses, doctors, and the many medical technicians who interact with your patient.

Another qualification of the job is the ability to remain calm.

The atmosphere in the emergency is often chaotic. Between loud people, loud machines, and often loud odors, distractions are everywhere.

It takes time but you can master remaining calm despite the surrounding chaos.

Managing time is another skill you’ll learn—over time. Prioritizing tasks and estimating how long task take is part of time management.

As you spend more time in the position you’ll develop coping methods as well. You’ll see difficult, often heartbreaking situations while working in the emergency department. Good coping methods don’t mean you abandon compassion for your patients but you do learn how to not let the gravity of their situation overwhelm you.

These are only a sampling of the qualifications of triage nursing but there are also certain characteristics that help a person fit into the role.

Are You a Problem Solver?

Triage nurses solve problems. Most of the time the problems patients have in the emergency department require quick thinking and good judgment.

But since patients are never identical nurses also must individualize treatment solutions.

What worked for a patient yesterday in a similar situation may not work today for a different patient. A good nurse is flexible and can adapt to a range of situations.

Triage nurses must make calm decisions and be ready for the unexpected.

If you enjoy solving problems and like coming up with creative solutions, you’ll enjoy triage nursing. Problem-solving ability helps nurses ensure patients get quick solutions to emergency situations but what about the way a nurse delivers care?

Be Empathetic

Have you ever shared a problem with a friend who really listened and made you feel like they understood your feelings? Your friend didn’t necessarily agree with your thinking but they shared your pain. That’s empathy.

A good nurse listens and tries to understand the patient’s point of view.

This means you don’t judge or push your values and beliefs on the patient and their family. Instead, you make your patient feel like they’ve been seen and heard.

All patients come to the emergency department with their own life experiences, value systems, and perspectives. You may not agree with their way of life or way of thinking.

Empathy doesn’t require agreement—it requires acceptance. Empathy helps nurses share a patient’s pain but nurses also help patient’s by using laughter.

Love a Good Laugh

For the serious-minded person, finding humor when dealing with often life-threatening or life-changing situations is a challenge.

Consider your patient. They’re vulnerable and not sure what’s wrong with them and uncertain of the outcome. Most don’t come with a smile (at least not at first).

Nurses who can mix humor into difficult situations not only enjoy their work more, their patients may also feel less overwhelmed.

It doesn’t mean you act like the class clown. But having a sense of humor and knowing when and how you should use it, can make the stress of the job easier.

Loving a good laugh may be the best medicine but successful nurses also love learning.

A Love for Learning

The field of medicine advances more with each day. Treatments improve and techniques that worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.

Professional development for nurses is ongoing. You’ll attend multiple workshops provided by the hospital but your own curiosity will also inspire life-long learning.

A great nurse is one who continually improves their skills.

Change is the nature of healthcare. Nurses must change with it and keep up with new medical technology.

Some nurses choose formal education and pursue another degree or certification. Others participate in as much in-hospital training as possible. The key is to foster an interest in continuing education, whether it’s formal or informal.

You Need Stamina

It’s a given—nurses work long hours and the job often requires long periods of standing.

You may also lift heavy patients and move heavy equipment. Energy and stamina are what get most nurses through the day. That and caffeine.

Stamina comes from taking care of your own health. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet help but exercise is about the only thing guaranteed to build stamina.

Nurses educate patients on healthy lifestyle but if they don’t practice what they preach, patients won’t listen. Start now increasing your energy levels so that when you’re ready for your first position in triage nursing, you can meet the physical demands of the job.

Ready for the Next Steps?

Hopefully, we’ve answered your questions about a career as a triage nurse.

From formal training to the qualifications of a great nurse. Developing empathy, working on communications skills, loving a good laugh, and taking care of your physical health. We’ve shared some of what you can look forward to in this job.

For more information about our nursing jobs, we invite you to learn more about us and what we offer for people interested in working in healthcare.