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Alarmed and Dangerous? Too much noise from hospital alarms poses risk for patients

New study suggests ways to combat alarm fatigue in hospitals

ANN ARBOR, MI – Hospital alarms, designed to prevent harm and improve patient safety, may have become too much of a good thing, says a new study from the University of Michigan and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System that recommends ways hospitals can fight alarm fatigue.

The article appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Like many innovations, alarms were first developed to help avoid complications among a small group of high-risk, critically ill patients,” says lead author Vineet Chopra, M.B.B.S., clinical assistant professor of Internal Medicine at the U-M Medical School and member of the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

“Because they have grown in popularity, we have come to a point where we have alarms for everything - not just for problems that are critical or life threatening. Providers may be desensitized to the all the noise in the hospital and can’t tell which alarms are important, often silencing or ignoring them. That puts patients at risk.”

U-M Division of General Medicine Chief Laurence F. McMahon Jr., M.D., M.P.H co-authored the article.

Alarms may be used for less urgent warning such as a ventilator sounding off because a patient coughed or an alert that a patient has left his or her bed. Others signal potentially life-threatening scenarios, such as changes in a patients’ heart rhythm or blood pressure. Several high-profile alarm-related deaths have caused concern in the medical community about the prevalence of alarms.

Chopra and McMahon recommend redesigning hospital alarms to make hospital environments safer and more efficient in the following ways: 

• Examining whether the alarm is truly needed
• If alarms are deemed necessary, re-designing the alarm to make it more or less intrusive to the provider based on seriousness of the alert
• Using technology to have alarms “talk” to one another so that serious events are better detected

“Hospital alarms are an incredibly valuable tool but we need to make drastic changes in how they are designed and used in order to ensure they do the job they were intended to do,” Chopra says.

Disclosure: Chopra and McMahon are co-inventors of technology that tracks the presence and duration of indwelling vascular and urinary catheters in hospitalized patients. The technology is not an alarm and has no direct relationship to the article.

Reference: “Redesigning Hospital Alarms for Patient Safety: Alarmed and Potentially Dangerous,” JAMA
 

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