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When Medical Alarms Are Ignored

The next time you go to the doctor, you may have your temperature or blood pressure recorded. When the reading is registered, a low beep sounds to indicate completion. Multiply that beep by 100 or 1,000, and you can imagine the environment for healthcare workers in hospital settings. The beeps are important, but what happens when the urgency of instrument tones is lost in the background drone of a medical setting? 

In April, a Sentinel Alert named desensitization to alarm tones in healthcare environments as alarm fatigue. Faced with ongoing monitor noise, the following can occur: 

  • Clinicians turn certain monitors down or off, disabling the ability of the equipment to warn of patients’ serious conditions.
  • Healthcare workers, when faced with audible overstimulation, pay selective attention and may not actually hear an important patient alarm.
  • Equipment may be adjusted to sound off outside the range for which it was designed, invalidating its ability to warn of a potentially dangerous situation. 

In the alert, the Joint Commission cites disturbing statistics, including alarm-associated incidents between 2009 and 2012 nationwide that involved: 

  • 98 incidents, 80 resulting in death of the patient
  • 13 of the incidents resulting in permanent disabling injury to the victim
  • Five patients requiring additional medical care or time in the hospital as a result of the alarm error 

While the idea of alarm fatigue is logical, its effect is lethal. 

In its report, the Joint Commission recommends development of overarching strategies to address the problem, additional training of healthcare workers and investigation of a realistic approach to alarms in medical settings. These are big goals for a big problem in healthcare today. 

If you were injured in a medical or other setting, speak with knowledgeable attorneys for dedicated legal assistance.

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