Across American hospital rooms, thousands of alarms beep every minute, some for as long as ten minutes at a time until they are responded to, or shut off. The cacophony and fatigue arising from these alarms has proved to be a hazard that seriously impacts patient safety.
The ECRI Institute estimates that alarm fatigue is one of the top ten tech-related hazards in American hospitals. Alarms are now associated with all patient care functions, and can monitor factors like changes in blood pressure, oxygen levels, and changes in cardiac rhythm. Many hospital beds are now fitted with alarms that can help nurses monitor even minor changes in the patient’s position and weight, in order to alert them to the possible risk of a fall.
This means that nurses often end up responding to alarms that are not necessary. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in a phenomenon called alarm fatigue, in which nurses, too fatigued by the frequently beeping alarms, fail to respond when important alarms go off.
The Joint Commission has called attention to the problem of alarm fatigue, and has estimated that as many as 80 percent of alarms in a hospital do not require immediate attention. The Commission has issued a report that calls on hospitals to implement formal processes to reduce the impact of alarm fatigue on healthcare providers, like nurses.
The Joint Commission states that alarm fatigue impacts not only staff members who fail to respond to alarms as a result of fatigue, but also patients who worry that every little movement could trigger alarms, or hesitate to move in their beds to avoid a bed alarm. That means an increased risk of deterioration of muscle mass as patients prefer to remain immobilized in order to avoid triggering off an alarm.
Hospitals need to work on mechanisms that help keep patients safe without the need for alarms. For instance, other fall prevention strategies are just as, or even more useful in preventing falls. Some hospitals are trying to curb the cacophony on their campuses, but more needs to be done to ensure that alarms that are meant to keep patients safe do not end up harming them.