"Alarm fatigue," or the failure of medical staff to respond to incessantly beeping devices, is one of the top conditions creating safety issues in hospitals, according to the Joint Commission, the national organization that accredits the facilities.
The Illinois-based commission recently called the issue a priority and announced it will meet with Food and Drug Administration officials to develop a strategy over the next few months, according to Dr. Paul Schyve, senior vice president for health care improvement.
"Alarms are too sensitive; nurses or doctors find themselves responding to something that's not a problem," Schyve said. Another concern is that there are simply too many in use and staffers grow desensitized.
"They're constantly going off, and studies suggest the vast majority of time, no action is taken," said Ilene Busch-Vischniac, McMaster University provost and a noise researcher. "People don't pay attention to alarms; they exist as much for legal liability reasons as much as for actually doing anything for patients."
Critical alarms can go off if a patient simply moves or gets up to use the bathroom. They may beep when one of five heart monitor leads comes off, even if the device still works. "Certain alarms we know aren't critical so we don't rush," said Ana Garcia, manager for telemetry at Resurrection Health Care's St. Joseph Hospital. "I know some nurses do get fed up with them. You just have to adjust to their rhythm."
ERCI, an organization that evaluates procedures, devices and drugs, placed alarm-related adverse events on its top 10 list of technology hazards for 2011. The incidents generally involved the staff being overwhelmed by the sheer number of alarms or not restoring alarm settings to normal levels after a temporary event, such as washing a patient.