Hospitals are rolling out new tactics in the battle against "alarm fatigue," a dangerous phenomenon where medical workers may not hear—or ignore—the ubiquitous buzzes and beeps of various medical devices.
More than 200 deaths between 2005 and 2010 were linked with alarm monitoring, according to the FDA. One driver is the sheer volume of alerts produced by increasingly sophisticated devices, which continues to grow and can overwhelm already busy nurses.
Staff members also may end up ignoring alerts because many of them are simply false alarms; ICU alarms are accurate less than 10% of the time, the Connecticut Post reports.
How manufacturers are getting 'smarter'
One problem is that many alarms may not distinguish between a change that warrants immediate medical attention (a concerning plunge in a patient's heart rate) and a technical problem (the electrodes attached to a patient's skin become loose), according to Marjorie Funk, a professor at the Yale School of Nursing.
As a result, manufacturers are developing a new generation of "smart alarms," which are capable of monitoring patients for specific vital signs and sending a "clinically relevant alarm…that something may be wrong with the patient," said Rikin Shah, senior associate at the ECRI Institute.
How hospitals are fighting back
Meanwhile, facility leaders are instituting measures designed to build in redundancy and remove pressure from frontline nurses.
At Bridgeport Hospital, administrators have installed talking bed rails to discourage patients who are fall risks from leaving their beds and triggering alarms. Some doctors at the hospital also tote iPhones that help identify which patients are most at-risk, allowing them to adjust their rounds in the moment to focus on these patients.
In addition, Bridgeport has set up central monitoring stations staffed by technicians who "keep their eyes on the monitors 24/7 to anticipate problems," according to Dr. Ryan O'Connell, the hospital's VP for performance and risk management. "This decreases the need for a number of alarms to go off" (Olivero, Connecticut Post, 3/31).