Alarm Fatigue and False Alarms

Medical Device alarm safety infographic

Have you ever driven your car without your seatbelt on.  If you have you’ve undoubtedly heard a “ding, ding, ding” noise to remind you to put on your seatbelt.  Or maybe you didn’t hear it even though it was dinging.  After a while we get accustomed to sounds and even sounds that are supposed to prompt us to do something begin to lose their effectiveness.

If you’ve spent any time in an intensive care unit you probably noticed all kinds of bells, chirps and alarms.  Monitoring devices among intensive care patients set off 2.5 million alarms in one month at a U.S. hospital, a new study of “alarm fatigue” shows.

Alarm fatigue occurs when hospital staff become desensitized to the constant beeps and bleeps of alarms, and either ignore them or turn them off. The problem has been identified as a major issue by The Joint Commission, which accredits U.S. hospitals.

Alarm fatigue isn’t a new topic but a recent study may have identified what to do about it.  Most alarms are false and just like the little boy who cried wolf, over time they get ignored.

Researchers in the study I mentioned above analyzed data from 461 adults treated in five ICUs at UCSF Medical Center over 31 days and found that more than 2.5 million alarms were sounded by the patients’ monitoring equipment.  That included more than 1.1 million alarms about heart rhythm problems, of which nearly 89 percent were false alarms caused by computer algorithm errors.  The study suggests that improved computer algorithms could cut down on the number of false alarms.

GVMH is working to identify ways to cut down on alarm fatigue as well.  Part of the process requires determining what devices really need to alarm.  Just because a medical device has an alarm option doesn’t mean it needs to alarm.  Adjusting volume of alarms and requiring a “buddy” to silence an alarm are other potential approaches to reduction of alarm fatigue.


About Craig Thompson

I am a young professional with two great sons, and I work in the healthcare setting. I am employed in hospital administration and serve as Chief Executive Officer at Golden Valley Memorial Healthcare in Clinton, Missouri. At GVMH we care for our families, friends and neighbors. We're committed to providing the safest, friendliest and most compassionate care to all we serve.
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