Patient deaths attributed to alarm fatigue, sounding alarm in nation

Highlighting a nationwide problem, recently released information about a patient's death at UMass Memorial Medical Center indicates that alarm fatigue was a contributing factor, reports The Boston Globe. A 60-year old man died in the UMass ICU after providers failed to respond to alarms that went off for an hour, which signaled increased heart rates and potential breathing problems, according to yesterday's article.

Known as alarm fatigue, the phenomena includes hospital care providers who sometimes become desensitized to beeps or buzzers, having been exposed to plenty all day long. In addition to human error, there also may be operational risks with using battery-operated technology.

Although the patient died in August 2010, the information became available in the spring. In addition to alarm fatigue, state inspectors said a medication error also may have been a factor.

This patient's death, whose name has yet to be released, is the second death attributed to alarm fatigue in four years at UMass. In 2007, 77-year-old Madeline Warner had a cardiac arrest when the alarm didn't sound, according to the article.

The hospital told the public health department that it is holding monthly ICU drills to improve how fast nurses can respond to alarms and providing education about alarm fatigue.

In a separate event, the family of Edward Harrigan is suing Tobey Hospital also in Massachusetts, after his heart monitor showed a flat line for more than two hours; the battery in his heart monitor failed, reports The Boston Globe in another article yesterday.

These cases may draw attention to a broader problem that spans the country. More than 200 deaths nationwide from 2005 to 2010 have been linked to alarm fatigue, reports The Boston Globe in April. In 2002, The Joint Commission issued an Alert about the issue, and in 2004, it became a National Patient Safety Goal.

For more information:
- read the Boston Globe article about UMass Memorial Medical Center
- read the Boston Globe article about Tobey Hospital
- read the April Boston Globe article
- see the AP report

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