A woman sitting in bed at night phones her doctor's office while experiencing a sudden-onset headache, one of several symptoms that patients call about after normal office hours.

Nurse Triage by the Numbers: Top 20 Symptoms That Patients Call About

What are the main concerns that people face when doctors’ offices are closed? How serious do they tend to be? Because there is a wide range of medical conditions that patients may experience, it’s the responsibility of triage nurses to understand those symptoms and guide patients to the most appropriate care. Below we explore the top 20 symptoms that patients call about most.

A Note About Triage Protocols

To address each caller’s symptoms, triage nurses need protocols. Those developed by Drs. Barton Schmitt and David Thompson are ideal because they offer a decision tree of yes/no questions that allow nurses to evaluate the severity of patients’ symptoms and anticipate worst-case scenarios. Here are the most common symptoms that are reported, split between most urgent and least urgent.

Most Urgent Symptoms That Patients Call About

1. Severe chest pain. Intense or crushing chest pain may indicate that patients are experiencing heart attacks or other cardiac-related emergencies.

2. Difficulty breathing. Sudden or severe shortness of breath, wheezing, or choking sensations may be caused by respiratory distress or asthma attacks.

3. Severe abdominal pain. Intense or persistent abdominal pain may be a sign of potentially serious conditions like appendicitis, gallstones, and gastrointestinal emergencies.

4. Uncontrolled bleeding. Profuse or uncontrollable bleeding that patients can see may require immediate medical attention to stop. (Patients may also be suffering from internal bleeding that they aren’t aware of.)

5. Loss of consciousness. After patients faint repeatedly, they or persons with them may call triage nurses to learn if loss of consciousness may be the result of low blood pressure, neurological issues, or cardiac problems.

6. Severe headache. Intense or sudden-onset headaches may be cause for concern, especially if they’re accompanied by symptoms like dizziness, confusion, or loss of vision.

7. Allergic reactions. Severe allergic reactions can result in difficulty breathing, swelling of the face or throat, hives, or anaphylaxis.

8. High fever in infants or young children. We’ve talked before about how new parents can feel unsure when symptoms affect their children, particularly when it comes to fever. This is especially true for infants who are less than three months old, but may also relate to young children who present high fevers in combination with other worrying symptoms.

9. Seizures. Patients may experience convulsions or seizures that last longer than a few minutes, or are accompanied by injury or loss of consciousness.

10. Injury or trauma. Fractures, deep cuts, head injuries, or dislocated joints often require immediate medical evaluation and treatment.

It’s worth noting that for situations like these, patients would do well to call 911 or go to an emergency room (ER) instead of calling a doctor’s office. However, triage nurses must be aware that they will still often get these calls. This means that they need to have the skills and training to recognize when patients should be advised to use one of those emergency options immediately.

Least Urgent Symptoms That Patients Call About

1. Fever. Any amount of elevated body temperature can give patients room for concern. This is often because fevers indicate that their bodies are fighting underlying infections or illnesses.

2. Coughing. While coughing in and of itself is normal and common, it’s when this behavior lingers that patients tend to worry. Persistent or severe coughing can be a sign of infections, allergies, or other conditions within the respiratory tract.

3. Pain (various locations). Chronic or acute pain in various parts of the body, such as headaches, back pain, abdominal pain, joint pain, or muscle pain can prompt patients to ask about the root causes and treatments.

4. Rashes. Skin rashes, itching, or irritation can be caused by allergies, dermatitis, infections, or underlying medical conditions.

5. Fatigue. Persistent or excessive tiredness, lack of energy, or unexplained exhaustion may be associated with various medical conditions, related to medications and prescriptions, or changes in the environment.

6. Digestive issues. Patients may be concerned with an initial bout of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, or abdominal discomfort, or they may call after these symptoms happen repeatedly.

7. Respiratory issues. Besides coughing, patients may have other respiratory-related concerns like breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, wheezing, or symptoms related to asthma, allergies, or infection.

8. Headaches. Patients may be concerned over mild headaches if they’re uncommon, but it’s more likely that calls will involve questions about intense headaches or migraines, as these impact daily activities and may require medical attention or management.

9. Urinary issues. UTIs, kidney stones, and enlarged prostates all contribute to urinary tract symptoms that patients call about, whether it’s frequent or painful urination, blood in their urine, or difficulty urinating at all despite feeling the need to. 

10. Mental health concerns. Patients who aren’t sure about who to speak with about mental health may phone triage nurses for assistance. Calls may relate to anxiety, depression, mood swings, insomnia, or other psychological or emotional issues that may require counseling or psychiatric evaluation.

While it’s expected that many patients will use the internet or telehealth to try and evaluate their symptoms first, physical examinations or diagnostic tests at a physician’s office, specialist center, or emergency department are often necessary for accurate diagnoses and treatments. 

Let Triage Nurses Help Your Patients With Any Symptom

Would you like to learn about nurse triage solutions that can field these types of calls on your practice’s behalf? Click here to discuss a customized program to increase your phone coverage and improve patient care!

About TriageLogic

TriageLogic is a URAC-accredited, physician-led provider of top-quality nurse telehealth technology, remote patient monitoring, and medical call center solutions. Founded in 2007, the TriageLogic Group now serves more than 22,000 physicians and covers over 42 million lives nationwide.

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