What Is a Telephone Triage Nurse?

Kristen Hamlin
Updated March 15, 2023
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Telephone triage nurses guide patients to the best treatment option for their condition. Discover how to become one and what to expect.
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Nurses talking on phone headsets on computersCredit: sturti / E+ / Getty Images

Nurses who want to interact with patients but want more flexibility should consider telephone triage nursing. A telephone triage nurse answers calls from patients and helps them determine the type of care they need based on their current condition. They help ease patients’ minds while streamlining healthcare delivery by directing patients to the right provider at the right time.

Review our guide to telephone triage nursing to learn more about this increasingly in-demand nursing career option, including common job duties, how to enter the field, and your earning potential.

How Long to Become:
(2-4 years)

Job Outlook:
6% growth from 2021-2031
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Average Annual Salary:
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Telephone Triage Nurse Do?

ADN or BSN Required
Certification Optional

When a patient calls their healthcare provider, they often do so without fully understanding what’s wrong and what kind of care they need. A telephone triage nurse helps bridge this gap by asking questions to gauge the patient’s condition and recommend the best course of action. This could mean advising the caller to seek emergency care, treat their condition at home, or make an appointment to see the doctor.

A telephone triage nurse cannot diagnose patients over the phone, but they gather information from the patient to determine the severity of their condition so they can make an educated recommendation. For patients who might face barriers to accessing care due to transportation or income, speaking with a triage nurse can help them make better decisions and use their resources most efficiently.

Telephone triage nurses can also help reduce pressure on emergency rooms by redirecting patients who don’t need emergency care to their primary care provider.

Although the titles are often used interchangeably, telephone triage nurses are not telehealth nurses. Telehealth nurses deliver patient care, usually counseling, over the phone or via video chat. Telehealth triage nurses collect similar information, but only to direct a patient to the right provider.

telephone triage nurse talking to patient

Reza Estakhrian / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Collect information from patient callers to assess their condition
  • Make recommendations for further care
  • Provide education and counseling to patients over the phone
  • Consult with physicians about patient care needs
  • Schedule appointments or referrals for patients
  • Work with medical records technology

Career Traits

  • Patient assessment skills
  • Exceptional communication and listening skills
  • Nursing knowledge and skills to educate patients in caring for minor ailments
  • Confidence and quick thinking

Where Do Telephone Triage Nurses Work?

Telephone triage nurses work in various settings, but many work from home. They take calls throughout the day and night during assigned shifts. Although this is a flexible arrangement, it can also mean taking calls at all hours, on holidays, and weekends.

Triage nurses may also work in an office setting in a large medical practice or hospital. Some insurance companies or healthcare systems also maintain call centers where triage nurses take calls from plan members or patients.

Regardless of the setting, the primary responsibilities remain the same.

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Why Become a Telephone Triage Nurse

Becoming a telephone triage nurse is a rewarding and potentially high-paying career, but it does have some challenges. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of pursuing this role.

Advantages to Becoming a Telephone Triage Nurse

  • check-circleRelatively safe work: You do not have to worry about exposure to pathogens or injuries since you are not working directly with patients.
  • check-circleFlexible work settings: Many telephone triage nurses work from home. Other options include call centers, doctor’s offices, and hospitals.
  • check-circleWorking with one patient at a time: Unlike nurses providing bedside care, telephone triage nurses help a single patient at a time. They do not have to juggle care for several patients at once or prioritize their patients.
  • check-circleAccess to immediate support and resources: While your nursing knowledge and skill are critical aspects of triage nursing, you’ll also have access to decision-making resources that help you provide the most accurate information and recommendation.

Disadvantages to Becoming a Telephone Triage Nurse

  • x-circlePotential liability when you make the wrong recommendation and a patient suffers injury
  • x-circleWorking with callers who may be openly hostile or frustrated
  • x-circleA lack of closure in dealing with patients: You may never know if they followed your advice and the outcome.
  • x-circleInconvenient or inconsistent working hours: As a triage nurse, you are “on call” and could receive a call from a worried patient at any hour during your shift.

How to Become a Telephone Triage Nurse

All nurses rely on their nursing knowledge and experience to make accurate assessments. This means they need a nursing degree, preferably at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, and an active nursing license to become a telephone triage nurse. Registered nurses (RNs) with associate degrees can benefit from the additional education and experience that comes from an RN-to-BSN or RN to master’s program.

This is not a role for an inexperienced nurse or recent graduate; most employers require triage nurses to have at least two years of clinical experience, preferably in an emergency or intensive care department. Although there isn’t a specific certification for this nurse specialty, many telephone triage nurses seek ambulatory care certification. Triage nurses have many of the same skills and competencies used in ambulatory care settings, making this a relevant credential.

How Much Do Telephone Triage Nurses Make?

Salary.com in March 2023 reports the annual median salary for triage nurses to be about $97,390. Salaries range from about $83,770 to $120,770, depending on employer, location, education, and experience.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide specific salary data for telephone triage nurses, but the agency notes that demand for RNs is projected to increase by 6% by 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. As with nursing in general, an aging population and increased demand for health services, in conjunction with efforts to streamline and reduce healthcare costs, will contribute to the growth in this field.

Frequently Asked Questions About Telephone Triage Nurses

How do I become a good phone triage nurse?

Gaining experience as a nurse, particularly in patient assessment and asking questions, is crucial to success as a telephone triage nurse. Developing your communication and listening skills can also support your success.

Is telephone triage considered telehealth?

Telephone triage is not the same as telehealth. Telephone triage nurses do not provide patient care. They evaluate information and make recommendations for the best type of care to seek.

Is telephone triage difficult?

Telephone triage can be challenging. Nurses are limited to the information that patients provide, and they must make decisions based on potentially inaccurate or incomplete information. Making the correct recommendation can also be challenging. Triage nurses need a great deal of experience and knowledge to make the correct call in potentially life-threatening situations.

What does a triage phone nurse do?

Telephone triage nurses take calls from patients with medical issues and help them determine the best way to treat the issue. They evaluate the information provided by patients and recommend emergency care, home care, or a doctor’s visit based on the severity and circumstances of their condition.

Related Pages

Page last reviewed March 4, 2023

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