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Joint Commission Proposes Hospital Alarm Management Goals

If you enter a hospital even once you will recognize it: the beeps, buzzing, hums, and ringing that make-up the hospital safety alarm system. These sounds are used for safety, set to make noise and alert caregivers when something might be amiss with a patient. When used properly, alarms are clearly a critical tool that can ensure fast action in the response to changes in conditions that might save lives.

But managing alarms is not necessarily a straight forward process. Identifying where alarms should be added or where some need to be taken away requires careful thought and planning. Too few alarms might mean that doctors and nurses do not react quickly enough to help a struggling patient. On the other hand, too many alarms could result in alarm fatigue such that there are so many sounds that no alert actually seems urgent. Alarm overload must be considered closely to understand the exact balance that is best for patients.

Goals for Future Years
It is in that vein that the Joint Commission is seeking information and feedback from involved parties before setting its 2014 Patient Safety Goal on Alarm Management. For the next month interested parties can answer a 15 question survey and questionnaire to provide guidance for dealing with these issues. The survey and more information about the Joint Commission’s goal can be found here. It can be completed online or sent via email.

The Commission noted that properly managing these alarms is critical, but there are as of yet no national guidelines or best practices for the management. The goal is to develop a “systematic, coordinated approach to alarms.”

A Becker’s ASC story on the proposed guidelines notes how the guidelines list five general elements which will hopefully be a part of the final 2014 goals. First, there is a need to establish alarm management as a safety priority that needs to be addressed. Until it is an agenda item on the lists of hospitals and clinics, then nothing will actually be done to improve and save lives. Next, an inventory of alarms and alarm settings need to be identified. This provides a “lay of the land” to begin to understand what does or does not need to change. Third, the most important alarms need to be identified. What alerts matter most and why? Fourth, perhaps most importantly, the actual policies for managing these alarms need to be established. The response to these sounds should not be ad hoc. Clear protocols need to be established that can be applied in all settings. Finally, staff members need to be educated about that policies and understand when and how to apply them. Clear rules are of little value if they are disregarded in practices or not understood by those needing to apply them.

Alarm management is just one of many different issues that all combine to influence patient safety at hospitals. While it may seem tedious to deal with these issues so intricately, considering the costs of medical errors in this regard, there is little excuse for failing to act prudently to develop logical rules for managing medical alarms.

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