Silencing some hospital alarms may lead to better care

Boston Medical Center is attracting national attention as a hospital that apparently has conquered alarm fatigue

By Healthcare Facilities Today
February 10, 2014

Richard Knox/NPR

Alarms are necessary in hospital care, except when there are so many of them that caregivers can't keep track of the ones that signal a crisis that requires immediate attention, according to an article on the NPR website.

In the case of Boston Medical Center, an analysis found that one wing was experiencing 12,000 alarms ­a day, on average. That kind of noise was producing a growing problem known as "alarm fatigue," according to the article.

Alarm fatigue can be dangerous. Patients can die when an important alarm is missed, or an electrode on a patient's chest comes unstuck, or a monitor's battery goes dead.

A Boston Globe investigation in 2011 found more than 200 deaths nationally related to alarm problems. Last year, the Joint Commission, a national quality-control group, warned of 98 alarm-related instances of patient harm, including 80 deaths and 13 cases of permanent disability.

The known alarm-related problems are just the tip of an iceberg, according to Dr. Ana McKee, the Joint Commission's chief medical officer, because such cases are seriously underreported.

"It is pervasive in almost any accident that occurs in a hospital," McKee said in the article. "If you look carefully, you will most likely find that there was an alarm as a contributing factor."

That's why the Joint Commission has put alarm problems at the top of its current list of issues that hospitals are expected to tackle. McKee says technology has gotten out of control. "We have devices that beep when they are working normally," she said. "We have devices that beep when they're not working."

Boston Medical Center is attracting national attention as a hospital that apparently has conquered alarm fatigue, according to that article. Its analysis showed the vast majority of so-called "warning" alarms, indicating potential problems with such things as low heart rate, don't need an audible signal. The hospital decided it was safe to switch them off.

Read the article or listen to the story.

 

 




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