Patient monitor alarms alert healthcare professionals that something is wrong. Yet, as we've reported many times before, the relentless beeps can overwhelm or desensitize hospital staff, sometimes leading to alarms being silenced, turned off or ignored. Now, a new Boston Globe special report examines the issue in detail.
By turning the alarms into background noise, "alarm fatigue" causes staff to ignore warnings from patient monitors or not respond as quickly, even in critical situations, which has led to patient deaths. In fact, more than 200 patients died nationwide because of problems with monitor alarms between January 2005 and June 2010, notes the Globe.
Hospital workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital were alerted with 942 alarms per day--or about one critical alarm every 90 seconds, according to the Globe. Adding to the noise level, some monitors are so sensitive that alarms go off when patients sit up or turn over. Hearing so many false alarms, caregivers becomes less likely to react quickly to warnings.
To combat alarm fatigue and prevent patient harm, some hospitals have put speakers in hallways to make it easier to hear alarms, or hired technicians solely responsible to supervise monitors, according to the Globe. Other hospitals are connecting fewer patients to monitors in order to reduce workers' overexposure.
However, improvements to patient monitors are costly, and monitor supervising techs are still at risk of developing alarm fatigue.
According to caregivers, the solution rests with manufacturers. But when improving the machinery, the monitors still need to be sensitive enough to catch a real emergency.