Alarm fatigue and medical errors

group and disabled people in the lobby business centerIn hospitals, nearly every medical device beeps or chirps, but the reasons for the sounds vary widely. The lack of machine standardization causes part of the problem because some alarms signal patient distress, while others indicate that the patient is stable. The constant din creates a white noise effect, so hospital staff either turn down the volume in order to focus on an issue at hand, or cease to respond properly as the noise fades into the background. This problem is called alarm fatigue, and it contributes to hospital negligence in Illinois because it leads to patient distress, extended hospital stays, and deaths.

Adjusting technology and practices reduces noise levels

According to the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving patient care, alarm fatigue is the number one health technology hazard. Each hospital bed  produces an average of 350 alarms per day, which means the hospital staff in one unit is exposed to thousands of alarms on every shift. Many of these are technological defects, settings and machine maintenance issues that do not require patient care responses. Contributing factors also include the following:

  • Defective alarms
  • Incorrect alarm settings
  • Alarm signals that cannot be heard in all areas

A large number of alarm issues unrelated to technology are also avoidable. An American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions analysis found that one in four patients were unnecessarily hooked up to an ECG monitor. Doctors disagree on the need for these, though. Some believe it is an important precaution, but others argue that the noisy monitors create more problems than they resolve.

Customizing alarm settings for each patient may be an effective solution. For example, Boston Medical Center deals with the noise issue by adjusting monitor alarms based on patient needs. This helps reduce alarm fatigue without losing the effectiveness of important alarms.

Dozens of fatalities are attributed to alarm fatigue

An average of 10 alarm-related fatalities were listed in the FDA’s Manufacturer and User Facility Device Experience database between January of 2005 and June of 2010. In a report by the Joint Commission, 98 adverse events were listed between January 2009 and June 2012. Eighty of these patients died, while 13 incurred a permanent disability. An extended hospital stay was necessary in five of these cases. The common causes of death listed included falls, treatment delays, medication issues and other medical errors. According to the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, the number of fatalities may be as much as ten times higher than the available data suggests.

Victims and their family members should contact an Chicago medical malpractice attorney to learn more about the compensation available to cover the high costs that alarm fatigue can cause.

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