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Don’t be Alarmed: Too Many Alarms in Hospitals can be Hazardous

Beeping, flashing, whirring, buzzing-a hospital room can be full of so many machines that it looks like a scene from Star Wars. These machines can be absolutely essential to patient health and safety. But according to a recent article in the Journal of American Medical Association, a problem arises when too many alarms and noises distract healthcare professionals from the vital ones that could be alerting caregivers to a life-threatening situation.

Medical machines emit alarms in various circumstances, from heart rate monitors to alerts when patients try to leave their beds. Ideally, alarms would activate only to alert a healthcare provider to a serious problem, which that healthcare provider could immediately address. But often, alarms do not function as intended, failing to alert to serious conditions, or will over-alert to non-serious problems. For example, alarms on cardiac monitors frequently set off when a patient is sleeping and the heart rate is lower but normal, and intravenous pumps emit a series of alarms just to indicate that it is finished pumping.

This electronic orchestra has caused frustration for both patients and providers-sometimes with deadly results. Some healthcare providers have resorted to disabling or muting alarms altogether. According to the Washington Post, the Joint Commission received 98 reports of alarm-related incidents, including 80 deaths, over a three-year period. But the commission says this is a gross undercount because reporting alarm-related deaths is voluntary. In one particularly tragic case, a 17-year-old girl’s respiratory monitor was muted when suffered irreversible brain injuries due to repressed breathing and died 15 days later.

Proposals for Reform
But the problem can be fixed. Hospitals can implement alarm priorities and reconsider any alarm that does not indicate a clear or potential risk. Along the same lines, hospitals should consider whether a mute function should ever be utilized, as any critically important alarm should not be turned off. Non-critical alerts that aid clinical efficiency, such as signals that an intravenous pump has finished pumping, could use non-auditory alert methods including vibrations or visual alerts. Furthermore, alarms systems can be integrated into clinical decision making. Machines can recognize when clinical patterns occur that are relevant to healthcare providers. Low blood pressure plus rapid heart rate can be a more significant concern than either of those things in isolation. But if machines worked in tandem to indicate serious deviations from the norm, then alerts to medical professionals may be more meaningful.

Hospitals should not be a hazardous place. When it is possible to avoid tragedy through implementing effective and efficient alarm standards, hospitals should strive to do so. When you’re in a physician’s care, you should be able to rest assured that alarms are functioning efficiently to help that physician give you the best care possible. If you believe your medical care has been adversely affected by a hospital’s alarm system or any other medical device, you may have a legal claim. Malpractice lawyers can help determine whether you or someone you know has received bad medical care.

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