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Emergency Department Triage Scales and Their Components: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Evidence

Nasim Farrohknia1*, Maaret Castrén2, Anna Ehrenberg3, Lars Lind4, Sven Oredsson5, Håkan Jonsson6, Kjell Asplund7 and Katarina E Göransson89

Author Affiliations

1 The Swedish Council for Health Technology Assessment and Dep of Medical Sciences, Uppsala University Hospital, Uppsala, Sweden

2 Dept of Clinical Science and Education and Section of Emergency Medicine, Södersjukhuset (Stockholm South General Hospital) Stockholm, Sweden

3 School of Health and Social Studies, Dalarna University, Falun, Sweden

4 Dept of Medicine, Uppsala University Hospital, Uppsala, Sweden

5 Dept of Emergency Medicine, Helsingborg Hospital, Helsingborg, Sweden

6 Dept of Orthopedics, Uppsala University Hospital, Uppsala, Sweden

7 Dept of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, University Hospital, Umeå, Sweden

8 Dept of Emergency Medicine, Karolinska University Hospital, Solna, Sweden

9 Dept of Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Solna, Sweden

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Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine 2011, 19:42  doi:10.1186/1757-7241-19-42

Published: 30 June 2011


Emergency department (ED) triage is used to identify patients' level of urgency and treat them based on their triage level. The global advancement of triage scales in the past two decades has generated considerable research on the validity and reliability of these scales. This systematic review aims to investigate the scientific evidence for published ED triage scales. The following questions are addressed:

1. Does assessment of individual vital signs or chief complaints affect mortality during the hospital stay or within 30 days after arrival at the ED?

2. What is the level of agreement between clinicians' triage decisions compared to each other or to a gold standard for each scale (reliability)?

3. How valid is each triage scale in predicting hospitalization and hospital mortality?

A systematic search of the international literature published from 1966 through March 31, 2009 explored the British Nursing Index, Business Source Premier, CINAHL, Cochrane Library, EMBASE, and PubMed. Inclusion was limited to controlled studies of adult patients (≥15 years) visiting EDs for somatic reasons. Outcome variables were death in ED or hospital and need for hospitalization (validity). Methodological quality and clinical relevance of each study were rated as high, medium, or low. The results from the studies that met the inclusion criteria and quality standards were synthesized applying the internationally developed GRADE system. Each conclusion was then assessed as having strong, moderately strong, limited, or insufficient scientific evidence. If studies were not available, this was also noted.

We found ED triage scales to be supported, at best, by limited and often insufficient evidence.

The ability of the individual vital signs included in the different scales to predict outcome is seldom, if at all, studied in the ED setting. The scientific evidence to assess interrater agreement (reliability) was limited for one triage scale and insufficient or lacking for all other scales. Two of the scales yielded limited scientific evidence, and one scale yielded insufficient evidence, on which to assess the risk of early death or hospitalization in patients assigned to the two lowest triage levels on a 5-level scale (validity).