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Many Hospital Deaths Caused by Staff's "Alarm Fatigue"

Update Date: Apr 09, 2013 10:14 AM EDT
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Anyone who has spent any time in a hospital knows that the rooms are filled with a variety of noises - the whirring of machines, the occasional cough from a patient and a near-incessant barrage of beeping. While the flood of noises may be annoying to a visitor or even a patient staying in hospitals, the effect can be dangerous for the people who work there. According to a recent report by the Joint Commission, "alarm fatigue" may cause hospital staff to miss signs that a patient is in distress, leading to patient injuries and even death.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserts that there have been over 560 deaths related to alarms. The Joint Commission says that there have been 80 deaths and 13 injuries related to alarms. Because the hospitals report the incidents themselves, the Joint Commission acknowledges that the number may be much higher. The commission, which is responsible for giving and maintaining hospitals coveted accreditation, also notes that ignoring the beeps may set off a chain reaction. That may, in turn, lead to a death or injury, but it is more difficult to attribute the beginning of the chain reaction to beeping alarms.

The Associated Press notes that devices may beep for any number of reasons: they may not be working or there may be an emergency. Since there is a lack of standardization and an abundance of technology, there is very little way for staff members to differentiate among the beeps, leading to a significant portion of the problem.

"Alarm fatigue and management of alarms are important safety issues that we must confront," Dr. Ana McKee, the executive vice president and chief medical officer of The Joint Commission, said in a statement. "The recommendations in this Alert offer hospitals a framework on which to assess their individual circumstances and develop a systematic, coordinated approach to alarms. By making alarm safety a priority, lives can be saved."

The organization suggests a number of steps: hospitals should issue guidelines for alarm settings, staff should check, inspect and maintain medical devices equipped with alarms; and that the hospitals should have a system in place for monitoring beeping alarms, among others.

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