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Medical device alarms: new algorithm helps sort out issue of auditory masking, P.2

In our previous post, we began looking at the issue of auditory masking in the context of medical device alarms. As we noted, auditory masking can make it difficult, if not impossible, for health care providers in emergency room and surgical settings to do their job and to appropriately respond to critical situations that arise in the provision of care.

For most health care institutions, it is impractical to do the physical testing necessary to determine whether auditory masking will occur between devices. This makes it easier for medical institutions and providers to shun responsibility for addressing the risk and to put their patients at risk of harm. New research, however, shows that there may be an effective way to determine in advance the possibility of auditory masking. 

The research details an algorithm that has been developed which would allow health care institutions, providers and medical alarm manufacturers to determine if auditory masking will occur between devices. The algorithm confirms what providers familiar with medical alarms already know—that different alarms can end up masking one other even when they meet different sound standards.

The significance of the research is that it can help determine whether a provider was at fault for missing a medical alarm. Theoretically, in cases where the algorithm shows that auditory masking could not have occurred between two devices, this may suggest evidence of negligence. Providers in medical alarm cases may seek to defend themselves by claiming alarm fatigue, and this is certainly a possibility even when auditory masking does not occur, but the research could still help narrow down the cause of missed alarms and thereby contribute to sorting out liability in medical malpractice litigation.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the algorithm, or similar methods of calculation, will be adopted by the courts and routinely used in medical malpractice cases.

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