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When Should You Ask An RN

This is the second post in a series on the empowered client. I’m currently working as a private practice psychotherapist and an urgent/emergent care triage nurse. 

I know many of you are computer-savvy clients. You pay attention to articles about health trends, scan articles about Vitamin D, depression screening, and relationship health, and you pay attention when an online news source mentions a new flu strain. The Internet is a portal to a vast amount of relevant medical information, including symptoms and treatments. However, the Internet is a poor source for triage and suggestions for diagnosis. No website would ever promote what I call “bot medicine”, where a bot helps diagnose people on the basis of symtoms. Even with sophisticated telemedicine practices, we still rely heavily on client report, direct observation, and laboratory testing. But there are times when it is appropriate to ask an RN about your healthcare concerns. Hospitals and ambulatory care settings are turning to nurses to help triage your call to your doctor so you get the care you need in a timely manner.

When Should You Ask An RN

So,  you’re sitting at home by yourself, or your spouse is asking you questions from the other room that sound like this:

“Honey, how long have you been complaining about that pain in your side since you fell off the ladder when you were putting up the Christmas lights?”

“You don’t look too good right now. Are you taking medication for that cough?”

“Uh, sweetie, I saw some blood in the toilet after you used it. Did you see that too?”

Nurses help you determine what action to take and when to take it.

While most of us don’t like to take time to see the doctor, the more important question is, “Is what is happening to me serious enough to warrant medical attention, and if so, how soon do I need to be seen?” Many medical centers hire nurses to (wo)man triage phone lines for potentially life-threatening conditions and urgent issues requiring timely medical attention. If your health insurance provider or medical center provides this service, a phone number is provided for you, and if your symptoms are urgent, your call is transferred to a nurse who can triage your symptoms.

What To Say

Accuracy with your symptoms is important. It makes a difference if your symptoms have persisted for a couple of days versus a couple of hours, is severe or mild, or you have serious symptoms such as as a high fever, chest pain or radiating pain, nausea or vomiting, or shortness of breath. While you might be inclined to minimize bothersome symptoms, remember that the triage nurse can help you ONLY if you are committed to the process of being truthful and accurate about your symptoms.

Do share pertinent historical information to the triage nurse. While some of your most recent medical history is available, you may have visited several clinics, physicians, and medical centers outside your normal health care centers. Information between facilities is not shared unless you requested them in writing. By quickly sharing that information over the phone, you can assist the triage nurse to see how the bigger picture of health affects the problem you are facing today.

While urgent/emergent nurses do not treat symptoms, they often can help point you in the direction of appropriate care for stress-related symptoms, anxiety and depression, and feelings of suicide and self-harm.

Here’s a few things NOT to do:

1. Don’t withhold information from a customer representative. These folks forward calls to the nurses, and they are given instructions to not triage your calls while providing HIPAA compliant care.

2. Don’t try to guess your diagnosis unless you are completely certain of the outcome of your symptoms. Just because you read it on the Internet does not mean that your cough and cold is the new flu strain. Remember that the longer you wax on eloquently about all the pieces of information you read on the Internet, the longer it takes for the nurse to gather the most pertinent information to assist you.

3. Don’t downplay your serious symptoms. If the nurse recommends a response, it’s based on those symptoms. If you downplay them, you run the risk of waiting too long for a prudent response to injury.

4. Don’t delay. One of the worst responses to injury or potential life-threatening symptoms is to do nothing or procrastinate. In some case, a situation may be more difficult or impossible to reverse.

Triage RN’s are often available to help clients know when they should see a doctor, seek emergency care, or try home care for conditions that are less severe. By requesting to speak to a nurse, you could not only be saving money, you could be saving your life, limiting serious injury, or shortening recovery time.

Have you tried calling a triage nurse when you’re sick or injured? What was your experience? Did you trust that your most urgent needs were forwarded to your PCP for further review?

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

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