Auditory masking could cause clinicians to miss alarms


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"Auditory masking" could cause hospital staff to miss important patient alarms, and threaten patient safety. 

The phenomenon happens when two similar sounds occur at the same time. Because of acoustics, one sound is hidden behind the other. And it can cause doctors and nurses to miss patient alarms such as those linked to IVs or heart rate monitors, writes Andrew Boyd, M.D., assistant professor of biomedical and health information sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, writes in an article for NetworkWorld.

When alarms go unanswered, providers often take the blame, Boyd writes, which is why auditory masking can be dangerous not only to patients but also to caregivers.

“It’s difficult to demonstrate or even record all of the devices sounding at the same time,” he writes. “In these situations, it’s easy to attribute the missed alert to alarm fatigue,” or a sensory overload clinicians may face if they’re constantly surrounded by noisy machinery.

Boyd and fellow researchers are developing algorithms to prove the phenomenon. Until the effect of auditory masking can be proved, he writes, the industry is “setting up our health professionals to fail.”

Some of the ways hospitals are working toward “silent” facilities to improve both noise levels and patient safety:

  • Wearable tech to replace noisy monitors to silently alert nurses when a patient’s condition changes.
  • Soft, ambient music to replace televisions in waiting rooms
  • Private waiting rooms for surgical patients

In addition to potentially causing clinicians to miss key alarms, noise can impact patient sleep and wellness during a stay, so hospitals are also looking into ways to improve acoustics and ensure staff members are involved in a “noise-conscious culture."