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FDA Targets “Alarm Fatigue” in Hospitals

Alarm fatigue is a growing problem is hospital across the country. Many community members have likely not heard of the issue before. Alarm fatigue refers to the desensitization of nurses, doctors, and assistants to various alarms and alerts that go off suggesting a problem with some aspect of a patient condition. Of course, alarms are intended to be warnings to caregivers to take quick action to ensure that a patient’s is not in danger. However, when those alarms are overused, going off in many instances when there is not an emergency, then caregivers can be lulled into a sense of security-failing to treat each alarm as an urgent matter. Many medical malpractice lawyers have come to calling it a problem akin to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

One journalistic examination into the problem found that between 2005 and 2010, at least 216 deaths were linked to alarm problems. In those cases, medical personnel failed to react urgently to alarms, even though they indicated a patient was in trouble. Of course, many more instances may also exist that were never directly attributed to alarm fatigue.

Besides desensitization, another problem is that alarms are simply used incorrectly. For instance, there are dozens of examples where medical personnel turned down the volume on ventilators, making it impossible to hear when an alarm went off alerting an emergency. This sort of conduct is usually a clear example of medical malpractice, with potentially deadly consequences.

The Food and Drug Administration now appears to be taking steps to tackle the problem. According to a Boston Globe story, the FDA is increasing its “pre-market” oversight of medical devices that include sound alarms. The goal is to limit the amount of alarms used in hospital settings to those that actually indicate serious problems.

Apparently there are over 4,000 applications submitted to the FDA for approval every year. Many of those applications are for tools like heart and oxygen monitors. One FDA device official, Dr. William Maisel, explained his goal of blocking products from entering the market with unnecessary alarms. Dr. Maisel explained that he had particular interest in “alarms that measure various physiological functions at once.” These new devices can consolidate various alarms together and issue an alert in more targeting ways that better predict when a patient is actually in trouble.

Besides the FDA, the hospital accreditation organization is also working on solutions to the problem. The organization is currently conducting surveys of hospitals and nursing homes before developing specific recommendations to address over-alarm concerns. Last year the group drafted a “national patient safety goal on alarm management” indicating that hospitals have to address these concerns in order to remain accredited.

Each Chicago medical malpractice lawyer appreciates that the problem of alarm fatigue is a somewhat complicated issue to tackle, because in many ways it is counterintuitive. At a cursory glance, warning alarms would seem an important safety feature. It is only when examined in context of the overall hospital environment that the problem emerges. Whatever the case, it is vital that the issues be address both by federal regulators and individual hospitals. Patient safety demands nothing less.

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