Assessing for Occult Suicidality at Triage: Experiences of Emergency Nurses

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Abstract

Introduction:

Screening for suicidality is a critical nursing function at the initial ED encounter. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and a substantial percentage of people who die by suicide present for health care in the year before their deaths. The emergency department provides health care professionals with a critical opportunity to identify patients at risk for suicide and intervene appropriately.

Methods:

Qualitative exploratory study using focus-group data.

Findings:

Effective and accurate suicidality assessment occurs not by asking a single question but also with the assessment of patient behaviors and presentation (appearance, hygiene, etc). When emergency nurses suspected occult suicidality, additional actions (finding private space, keeping patients safe, and passing on information), took priority.

Discussion:

The Joint Commission recommends using clinical judgment tools for the final determination of safety for a patient at suspected risk of suicide, as research findings suggest that a screening tool can identify persons at risk for suicide more reliably than a clinician's personal judgment. Our participants report that when they assessed suicide risk at triage, it was usually by asking a single question such as “Do you have thoughts or plans to harm yourself?” and they expressed concern about the effectiveness of doing so. Participants described their efforts to improve suicide screening across the duration of the patient's ED stay through an iterative process of assessment that included further probing and eliciting, evaluating, and reacting to the patient's response.

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