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Medical device alarm systems can lead to fatal errors

Regardless of the medical issue that leads to a hospital stay, patients will probably have at least one device near the bed that sends alerts to the health-care providers who are monitoring them. While these electronic systems often have lifesaving functions, they could also compromise safety.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the number of audible alerts that bombard clinicians constantly leads to a serious condition: alarm fatigue.

False alarms

A provider may hear around 190 alarms from just a single patient’s equipment in a day. Only 10 percent of these are typically alerts that actually require attention, but a nurse or doctor must still respond to all of them to know which it is. Because of the number of patients and false alarms, the noise often desensitizes clinicians, creating the fatigue that can be deadly. In fact, the ECRI Institute has placed alarm fatigue at the top of the list of health technology hazards four years in a row.

Device errors

Researchers claim that a large part of the problem lies in the computer algorithms of the devices. After adapting these to a patient’s conditions, clinicians should also be able to adjust settings rather than leaving them on the default.

While some hospitals have made the choice to silence alarms they deem unnecessary, others believe this could lead to its own problem. Instead, researchers say that clinicians should evaluate the conditions that are prompting false or unnecessary alarms and find ways to resolve the issue.

Staff response

According to researchers, one important facet of addressing the issue at the staff level should involve education. Analyses revealed that many clinicians had not received adequate training on how to use the equipment monitoring systems.

Clinicians also reported having difficulty responding to and adjusting the settings of alarms while working to monitor the equipment. Safety experts believe that the ultimate responsibility for eliminating alarm fatigue may rest with those who develop policies and procedures for best practices at the institutional level. 

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