Can paramedics using guidelines accurately triage patients?

James E. Pointer, M. Andrew Levitt, Justin C. Young, Susan B. Promes, Benedict J. Messana, Mary E.J. Adèr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


Study objective: We determine whether paramedics, using written guidelines, can accurately triage patients in the field. Methods: This prospective, descriptive study was conducted at an urban county emergency medical services (EMS) system and county hospital. Paramedics triaged patients, for study purposes only, according to 4 categories: (1) needing to come to the emergency department by advanced life support (ALS) transport, (2) needing to come to the ED by any transport, (3) needing to see a physician within 24 hours, or (4) not needing any further physician evaluation. Medical records that provided patient treatment information to the point of ED disposition were subsequently reviewed (blinded to the paramedic rating) to determine which of the categories was appropriate. The protocol of the EMS system of the study site dictates that all patients should be transported except for those who refuse care and leave against medical advice. Only transported patients were included in the present study. Fifty-four paramedics triaged 1,180 patients. Results: Mean patient age was 43.4±17 years; 62.0% were male. Paramedics rated 1,000 (84.7%) of the patients as needing to come to the ED and 180 (15.3%) as not needing to come to the ED. Ratings according to triage category were as follows: 804 (68.1%) category 1,196 (16.6%) category 2, 148 (12.5%) category 3, and 32 (2.7%) category 4. Seven hundred thirty-six (62.4%) patients were discharged, 298 (25.3%)were admitted, 90 (7.6%) were transferred, 36 (3.1%) left against medical advice, and 20 (1.7%) died. The review panel determined that 113 (9.6%) patients were undertriaged; 55 (48.7%) of these patients were misclassified because the paramedics misused the guidelines. Ninety-nine patients (8.4% of the total sample) were incorrectly classified as not needing to come to the ED. This represented 55% of the patients (99/180) categorized as 3 or 4 by the paramedics. Fourteen patients (1.2% of total) were incorrectly classified as category 4 instead of 3. Of the 113 undertriaged patients, 22 (19.6%) were admitted, 86 (76.1%) were discharged, and 4 (3.5%) were transferred. Conclusion: Paramedics using written guidelines fall short of an acceptable level of triage accuracy to determine disposition of patients in the field.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)268-277
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of Emergency Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Emergency Medicine


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