Alarm fatigue in hospitals may lead to patient injuries

Every day, each one of us is exposed to countless alarms and alerts. Whether from a cellphone, a computer or even an automobile, different types of tones, beeps and squeaks can overwhelm our senses and render us numb to the information they convey. Of course, this defeats the very purpose of these systems: they have been designed specifically to make noise in order to gain our attention.

While the phenomenon of alert fatigue hardly qualifies as a concern in most everyday situations, it can, in fact, be deadly in a hospital setting. The Joint Commission, an independent, nonprofit healthcare certification and accreditation group, recently published a report regarding the occurrence of medical errors caused by doctors and hospital staff ignoring critical alarms sounded by hospital equipment. According to the group's findings, the sheer number of alarms in modern hospitals has made it easier for staff to tune them out.

Lack of standardization a problem

One of the main problems identified by the report is the lack of standardization for certain types of alerts. For example, some machines may sound an alarm when a patient's vital signs fall below preset limits, but others may sound an alarm when some sort of routine technical malfunction occurs. After days, weeks and months of hearing non-critical alarms, hospital staff no longer responds to them as if they were essential to patient safety. In some situations, staff response to an alarm may be delayed, while in others there may be no response at all.

Unfortunately, the Joint Commission also indicates that the failure to respond to alarms in hospitals has led to patient deaths. The authors of the report estimate that approximately 24 deaths occur each year due to alarm fatigue in hospitals. The actual number may be much higher, however, because these sorts of errors are particularly difficult to track. In fact, the commission's estimate is much lower than those by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has published research showing that as many as 100 of these sorts of fatalities occur in hospitals annually. The FDA's numbers are skewed, however, because they include instances of machine malfunction that may not have directly contributed to a patient's death.

Even though it may be difficult to identify the precise number of deaths in a given year, the reality is that noise fatigue is fast emerging as a health threat in our nation's hospitals.