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Acad Emerg Med. 2008 Aug;15(8):731-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00177.x. Epub 2008 Jul 11.

Triage presenting complaint descriptions bias emergency department waiting times.

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Melbourne Health, Melbourne, Australia.



The authors aimed to determine whether certain emergency department (ED) triage "presenting complaint" descriptions are associated with shorter or longer waiting times, when compared with matched controls.


This was a retrospective, analytical study in three tertiary referral EDs. Data relating to adult patients with Australasian National Triage Scale (NTS) Category 3-5 complaints, who presented over 1 year, were accessed. A pilot study of 25 emergency physicians (EPs) identified five most liked and five most disliked presenting complaints. For each liked or disliked complaint, "cases" were identified using key words and phrases in the triage presentation description. For each case, the previous presentation at that institution with the same NTS category was used as a "control." Cases and controls were compared for waiting time and proportions seen within the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM)-recommended waiting times.


Data on 28,566 case-control pairs were examined. Compared to their controls, three of the five most liked complaints (dislocations, fractures, and palpitations) had significantly shorter waiting times, and significantly more were seen within the recommended waiting times (p < 0.05). In contrast, three of the five most disliked complaints (dizziness, constipation, and back pain) had significantly longer waiting times, and significantly fewer were seen within the recommended waiting times (p < 0.05). Other presenting complaints showed similar, although nonsignificant, trends.


Waiting times for patients with certain presenting complaints are significantly associated with triage presenting complaint descriptions. It is likely that these descriptions allow EPs to selectively seek or avoid patients with liked or disliked complaints, respectively. The impact of this for patients and ED flow needs investigation.

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