Modern hospitals are filled with high tech equipment intended to help health care providers identify changes in patient condition and avoid injury or death. Many of these high tech pieces of equipment have audible alarms that sound in an effort to notify health care workers of impending problems such as heart problems, breathing problems, or a patient’s attempt to get out of bed without supervision. So why are these alarms being ignored, and in some cases actually turned off, by the very health care providers the alarms are intended to notify?
The answer is a condition known as alarm fatigue-the tendency of health care workers to tune out (or turn off) the alarms in an increasingly noisy alarm-driven health care environment. (Think of your reaction over time to a car alarm that keeps going off.) In some cases health care workers actually turn off the audible alarms not because they do not care about their patients, but because the workers are inundated by false alarms and alarms sounding by multiple pieces of equipment. Alarm fatigue can also contribute to equipment malfunction such as when health care workers ignore alarms which signal that a device needs a new battery or needs to be charged.
As technology at the bed side increases, hospitals and equipment manufacturers must consider how to integrate the technology in a way so as to minimize the risk to patient safety presented by alarm fatigue. Failure to do so will jeopardize patient safety and lead to preventable injury and death.
The risk to patient safety presented by alarm fatigue was discussed in a February 13, 2011 article by Liz Kowalczyk published in the Boston Globe.