What are “red flags” and why is effective triaging so important?

Healthcare professionals across every medical discipline come across a broad spectrum of patient problems every day – and many conditions are not easy to spot. For this reason, a wide knowledge base is required in order to diagnose illnesses properly. Patients will also present themselves at all different stages of a disease; some will seek medical advice very early on, whilst others have waited until they’re very worried or in debilitating pain before seeking help. Plus of course, the severity of symptoms often has no relation to the severity of the disease. Some patients may have serious and life-threatening conditions such as cancer or heart disease but only show mild symptoms, whereas others have a common, highly treatable problem that’s causing them extreme pain.

why is effective triaging so important?
Why is effective triaging so important?

One of the main tasks of a primary care practitioner is to minimise the risk of mistaking serious illnesses for more minor ones. To achieve this, it’s essential to look for “red flags” – clinical indicators that show an underlying condition that could well be serious.

Red flags are signs and symptoms that only become apparent once you have examined a patient and their history. The ability to evaluate red flags is vital because decision making is highly dependent on physical examination and patient history. Investigatory facilities are also often minimal at primary care level. Common red flags include weight loss, bleeding, recurrent headaches and stomach complaints for example. However, there are all sorts of red flags and many are not always obvious. Successfully identifying red flags will give rise to further investigation and/or referral, and is an integral part of primary care. It is of huge value to both primary caregivers and their patients.

Recognising and managing red flags quickly is essential

Recognising and managing red flags in clinical medicine can also be challenging because not all red flags have the same diagnostic power. Some are very specific and point to only one or two conditions, whereas others are more general and therefore less diagnostic. On top of this, even these less diagnostic red flags could still indicate a serious illness after all, which will only come to light after further investigations.

Even the mildest, most common signs and symptoms can be an indication of a serious illness when displayed alongside other specific signs and symptoms. For instance, loss of appetite is not a red flag on its own, but if combined with another symptom like rectal bleeding, the two together could be a red flag for bowel cancer. Essentially, all red flags, whether highly diagnostic or not, general or specific, warn us of the possibility of disabling and life-threatening disorders.

Can you confidently determine the red flag signs of a serious illness?

Effective triaging early on can make all the difference to your patient’s diagnosis and treatment. Identification of serious conditions, if they are underlying, is important in clinical assessment and treatment. For instance, early detection of various cancers could go a long way in preventing their spread.

At PDUK we offer two particularly useful CPD courses aimed at nurses, OPTs, matrons, medical students and other allied healthcare professionals to boost diagnostic proficiency and clinical decision making. Both are scheduled courses offered in London (one at St. Bart’s Hospital and one at Hamilton House) and each span between one and five days.

The first one is the Five-day patient assessment skills workshop. Having learned how to take a basic history of your patient and some essential physical examination techniques, you’ll have the chance to perform a complete physical examination. It will reflect best clinical practice as well as help to develop all-round confidence. The course mainly focuses on adult patients rather than children.

Completion of this course does not qualify the attendee as an advanced practitioner but it does offer the first step in expanding practice, leading to a more autonomous role.

Then there’s our Minor illness triage essentials course. Highly interactive, it focuses on essential observations and history taking triaging patients effectively. It is specifically designed for healthcare professionals who regularly see patients with undifferentiated conditions, and all of the major body systems are covered.

All course materials and refreshments are included in both courses with various dates available between May and July, depending on which course you choose. Both book up quickly though, so make sure to secure your place early.

Thanks for stopping by today, I hope you’ve found this post of effective triaging useful.

rachel bustin


*This is a collaborative post

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