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Rising Problem of Patient Injuries Due to Alarm Fatigue

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

Hospital patients are connected to a myriad of machines intended to monitor a variety of body systems to keep those patients safe. These devices sound alarms if the patient is in distress or the device or connections need attention. Unfortunately, these alarms are not always bringing the help and attention required. Results from a Boston Globe investigation recently revealed that 200 hospital patients died as a result of problems with alarms on patient monitoring machines. The study looked at hospital patients nationwide between January 2005 and June 2010.

According to Boston Globe findings, many of the patient injuries and deaths were due to inaction or delayed action from hospital staff members. This new phenomenon is being called “alarm fatigue.”

Alarm Fatigue, a Growing Concern

Alarm fatigue occurs when hospital staff members become so desensitized by the sound of beeping monitors that they no longer hear them – the alarms become background noise.

Most patients are monitored with machines, which are constantly issuing beeps and alarms to signal for assistance. The alarms vary in sound decibel and frequency. Not all alarms are for life-threatening matters; often a monitor will sound an alarm for maintenance issues, such as a low battery or connection problem. As a result, nurses are ignoring alarms, turning them off without investigating the source or just tuning them out completely. Patients are paying the consequences, often with their lives.

What are the Solutions?

Hospitals that have had a higher rate of patient deaths due to alarm fatigue have focused their attention on reducing this problem. So far some health facilities have implemented changes, such as hiring staff members to supervise monitor devices and requiring employees to check monitors more frequently. Others have hired outside companies to look at their monitoring system and recommend improvements. Additional research is being done by manufacturers as well.

Although some solutions are being tried, at this time, there is no sure answer to stopping alarm fatigue and putting an end to preventable patient deaths.

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