‘Alarm fatigue’ among nurses often leads to missed emergencies

Almost anybody in Illinois who has spent time in a hospital will tell you that it can be a noisy place. Patients are often connected to several machines and monitors that beep, honk and make other noises. These sounds are meant to indicate when the patient is doing well — and when a nurse needs to respond to a potentially serious problem, perhaps even an emergency.

Those who work around these machines sometimes become tired of hearing these noises all day. Nurses often will turn down the machines’ volume or even mute them. This is called “alarm fatigue” and it can seriously harm your medical care while you are in the hospital.

As readers likely have guessed, just because a machine is not alerting medical staff to a sudden health problem such as depressed breathing, irregular heartbeat or empty medication container does not mean the problem does not exist. When a nurse does not respond to an alarm or turns it off, the results are frequently deadly. The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals in Illinois and the U.S., says there were at least 98 cases of alarm fatigue incidents from the beginning of 2009 through June 2012. Of those 98 incidents, 80 caused a patient’s death. The problem is severely underreported, the commission says, so the number of deaths and serious injuries could have been as high as 1,000.

These incidents are frustrating because prompt attention to the alarms could have prevented all of them. In one case, a 17-year-old girl went in for a tonsillectomy. She was administered a painkiller that caused her breathing to slow down dangerously. But nurses did not respond to an alarm and did not check on her for 25 minutes, but which time she had suffered severe brain damage that killed her weeks later.

To try to combat this serious type of medical negligence, the Joint Commission will start requiring hospitals to identify which types of machines pose the greatest risk of causing harm if their alarms are shut off starting in 2014. Facilities will need to have designate staff members to shut off alarms staring in 2016.

Source: The Washington Post, “Too much noise from hospital alarms poses risk for patients,” Lena H. Sun, July 7, 2013


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