Most everyone’s been in a hospital at some point, either as a visitor or a patient, and many likely noticed the incredible noise that is so often associated with medical facilities. Heart monitors ping, bed alarms beep, blood pressure monitors blare and myriad other machines whirl. The racket is obnoxious to visitors, distracting to staff members and, at least according to recent studies, potentially deadly to patients.
In the industry this annoying combination of alarms leads to what is known as alarm fatigue. Alarm fatigue occurs when employees at medical facilities, often hospitals and nursing homes, become used to the constant onslaught of noise and begin to tune it out. After weeks and months of hearing the same noises, staff members learn to ignore many and occasionally even go out of their way to turn down or mute some machines. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to some serious problems and is an issue the health care industry desperately needs to address.
In June, the Joint Commission, an organization that monitors and accredits hospitals across the country, specifically issued a warning saying that hospitals need to make alarm monitoring a top priority. The Joint Commission said that any hospital that fails to draw up a plan to address alarm issues, including clearly laying out which staff members are allowed to turn off or mute alarms, risks jeopardizing their accreditation.
Over the last three years studies have found that a shocking 80 people have died in alarm-related incidents, mostly involving cases where alarms were turned off or muted. That number is already too high, but officials with the Joint Commission and other patient advocacy groups say the real number is actually much higher because alarm issues are historically underreported. Some groups have estimated that as many as 1,000 patients die each and every year due to alarm issues.
One recent and especially tragic case highlighting the trouble with alarm fatigue concerns a teenage girl who went to the hospital to have her tonsils removed. The girl was given a powerful painkiller after surgery, which is known to slow a patient’s breathing. Despite this obvious risk, the girl’s respiratory monitor was muted and the nurse waited nearly a half hour before checking on the girl who had stopped breathing. Sadly, the girl died 15 days later after suffering severe brain damage.
According to the Joint Commission, staff members don’t turn off alarms out of callous disregard for their patients, but are instead often overwhelmed by noise and seeking peace and quiet. One study found that the average medical professional in a typical hospital’s neonatal ICU hears an alarm every 66 seconds. Though many alarms are important, others are low-priority issues or mistakes related to machines not being properly calibrated. However, the constant beeping and buzzing leads to such chaos that nurses are frequently unable to distinguish which alarms are truly important. Another study conducted at Johns Hopkins found that 771 alarms sounded on average each day per hospital bed in the ICU, 80 percent of which were for low-priority issues.
Though the solution is not to simply rip all the machines off the walls, hospitals need to take action to better prioritize the current symphony of unnecessary sounds. Removing some of the unimportant noises allows the truly important ones to be heard, hopefully saving the lives of innocent patients.
Medical negligence lawyer Ben Sansone is located in St. Louis (Clayton) Missouri and handles medical negligence cases across all of Missouri and Illinois. For a free consultation please call (314) 863-0500 or contact us online.
Source: “‘Alarm fatigue’ can kill, hospital group says,” by Lindsey Tanner, published at NBCNews.com.