Hospital Alarms May Be Desensitizing Health Care Workers

The sound of an alarm is intended to draw the immediate attention of those in an area. But when alarms become commonplace, they can become ineffective. A car alarm in the city may annoy passers-by, but it is hardly rare enough to inspire most people to investigate. Recently, a Joint Commission report revealed that dozens of people die every year because hospital workers ignore the alarm noises made by the devices meant to monitor vital signs. The report further states that the situations where this happens are likely significantly underreported. The Joint Commission issued an alert to hospitals to make them aware of the situation and hopefully to take steps to combat it.

The Joint Commission, a hospital accrediting organization, suggested that the number of beeps and the lack of standardization as to what the beeps mean may lead to noise fatigue and cause a delay in proper treatment for the patient. An alarm may issue due to a drop in blood pressure or heart rate. They may issue when a machine completes the dispensation of medication. The beeping may indicate that a connection has come loose or that a machine is not working properly. Once workers lose the sense that an alarm actually signifies a meaningful event, the device becomes, at best, useless.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gathered more than 500 reports of fatalities that may have resulted from hospital alarms between January 2005 and June 2010. The situations included in those reports were more broadly defined than those used by the Joint Commission. Regardless of methodology, it is clear that hospital alarms are not being used effectively in many situations. It is also clear that patients are paying the price for those failures with their lives in some cases.

Source: The Washington Post, “Too many beeping hospital alarms linked with dozens of deaths in new Joint Commission report,” by Lindsey Tanner, 8 April 2013