Healthcare News & Insights

Alarm fatigue: New sounds may help prevent issues in hospitals

Hospitals are full of alarms that constantly go off – sometimes for no reason at all. Not only does this contribute to alarm fatigue among clinicians, it also has detrimental effects on patients’ recovery. Researchers are trying to create alarms that solve these problems, which could revolutionize care in your hospital. 

Currently, most alarms give off high-pitched beeping sounds that either annoy everyone in their presence or blend in as background noise. That impacts how effective they are in alerting staff about any significant changes in patients’ conditions.

Although staff don’t intentionally ignore alarms, it happens far too often, and it contributes to the amount of adverse events that harm patients in hospitals. ECRI Institute, a healthcare-focused nonprofit, frequently lists various types of alarm-related issues on its top “health technology hazards” to watch for each year.

To make alarms more informative and less jarring, several specialists are exploring the idea of using tones that are easier on the ears, according to an article in the New York Times.

One group of specialists is working with alarm manufacturers, doctors and hospitals across the country to make several changes to how alarms work. Some of the updates they’re working on include:

  • Quieter alarms
  • Visual cues to go along with alarm tones (e.g., screens with interactive displays), and
  • More pleasing sounds (designed to imitate the natural tones of heartbeats or dance music).

Other new sounds being tested include tones that match the function the alarms are monitoring. For example, a shaking pill bottle would indicate that a patient needs a drug infusion and a tea kettle’s whistle would indicate an issue with a patient’s temperature.

These changes would likely make alarms easier to deal with for patients and staff alike, and manufacturers may be incorporating them into their alarms and other devices soon.

What facilities can do now

In the meantime, hospitals should be taking several steps to fight alarm fatigue among clinicians (and improve patients’ chances of getting a good night’s sleep) by reducing the number of alarms that go off on a regular basis.

Spok, a healthcare communications company, offers the following suggestions to reduce alarm fatigue for doctors, nurses and other clinical staff:

  • Regularly inspect, monitor and clean alarm equipment to ensure it’s working properly.
  • Reduce the number of alarms that sound because of minor changes in a patient’s condition.
  • Invest in technology that’ll allow alerts to be sent directly to clinicians’ mobile devices.
  • Instead of audible alarm tones, consider using text-based alerts, which can also be sent to smartphones and tablets.
  • Customize alarms for each patient’s condition so they’re actually helpful.
  • Make sure alarm thresholds are set correctly to cut down on false alarms.

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