Healthcare News & Insights

Keys to fighting alarm fatigue in clinicians

When patient alarms go off multiple times an hour, doctors and nurses can get desensitized to them. This makes it hard for them to properly care for patients and puts patient safety at risk. 

160085472So how can hospitals combat alarm fatigue?

Recent research shed some light on this issue.

To see just how often clinicians heard these alarms, researchers counted how many times patient alarms sounded in one large California hospital, UCSF Medical Center, over the course of a month in its intensive care units. The results were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

During the month-long period, 461 adults were treated in the ICUs, and alarms went off on a regular basis for each patient. The final tally? Over 2.5 million alarms went off in 31 days.

Out of these alarms, more than 1.1 million were specifically about heart rhythm problems – and almost 89% of those were false alarms.

Cause for alarms

While a good chunk of these false alarms happened because the alarm system thought it sensed a significant change in a patient’s vital signs, some happened simply because of equipment failure. The alarm electrodes were getting old and in need of repair or replacement.

A way to solve this problem would be using automatic monitors to let doctors and nurses know an electrode needs replacing.

Barring the availability of that kind of technology, regular maintenance checks from your alarm system’s vendor or your IT department may help you avoid this issue.

Possible customization

Hospital alarms should allow clinical staff to differentiate between a symptom that’s out of the norm for a particular patient and one that’s expected given the person’s current health condition. This would cut down on some of the alarm noise and alleviate alarm fatigue.

Researchers theorized that the best way to achieve this goal would be customization of alarms for individual patients, instead of standard alarm settings. For example, the default setting for an alarm that alerts clinicians of a high heart rate for a patient may need to be tweaked for a patient who normally has a slightly-higher-than average heart rate because of persistent atrial fibrillation.

Another possibility is allowing clinicians to delay or disable certain repetitive alarms for a patient. However, the researchers stressed that more studies are needed before taking such a step — it could cause issues with patient safety.

The only way this could be a viable solution is if mechanisms were in place to make sure the alarms weren’t necessary – such as a built-in prompt to delay an alarm that’s triggered after an alarm’s gone off multiple times for a patient who didn’t require immediate medical attention.

What to do now

It’s important to make sure your hospital takes steps to get alarm fatigue under control.

Working with IT staff and vendors to make sure your alarm system is in tip-top shape could cut down on unnecessary alarms sounding at your hospital. Also, you may want to ask about any available options for customizing your alarm system – and tell your vendors to let you know about any improvements coming down the pipeline.

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