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.