“Alarm fatigue” endangers hospital patients

“Alarm fatigue” caused by the rising use of monitors is distracting and numbing hospital personnel with deadly results, the Boston Globe reports.

An investigation by the newspaper reveals that more than 200 hospital patient deaths in the U.S. between January 2005 and June 2010 are linked to problems with alarms on patient monitors that track heart function, breathing, and other vital signs.

Typically, the problem isn’t the equipment, but rather the failure by medical personnel to react with urgency or notice the alarm. As monitor use continues to increase, the audible beeps from the machines can become so relentless that nurses become desensitized. How relentless? At a 15-bed unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, staff documented an average of 942 alarms per day – about 1 critical alarm every 90 seconds.

Nurses said the number of alarms can be so overwhelming that they turn into background noise – although a dozen nurses interviewed by the Globe said they have never seen a nurse purposely ignore an alarm. The problem, says one nurse, is that “everyone who walks in the door gets a monitor. We have 17 [types of] alarms that can go off at any time. They all have different pitches and different sounds. You hear alarms all the time. It becomes . . . background.”

In addition, the devices themselves have flaws that contribute to alarm fatigue. For example, monitors can be so sensitive that alarms go off when patients sit up, turn over or cough. Some studies have found more than 85 percent of alarms are false (i.e. they go off when the patient isn’t in danger. Over time this can make nurses less and less likely to respond urgently to the sound.

In many cases, of course, nurses miss alarms warning of problems that aren’t life-threatening. But even the highest-level crisis alarms, which are typically faster and higher-pitched, also may go unheeded.

In one extreme case, a cardiac monitor blared 19 dangerous arrhythmia alarms for nearly 2 hours before staff silenced the alarms temporarily without treating the patient, who died. In other instances, staff have misprogrammed complicated monitors or forgotten to turn them on.

Hospitals that have experienced alarm-related deaths have aggressively addressed the issue, hiring nurses and technicians whose sole job is to monitor the monitors and modifying monitors to make them less sensitive to unimportant changes and less prone to false alarms. But overall, hospitals and the medical device industry have yet to seriously tackle the issue.

Source: The Boston Globe

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
Washingtonian Top Lawyer 2011
Avvo Rating 10.0 Superb Top Attorney Best Lawyers Firm
Contact Information