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Nurses suffer alarm fatigue

Federal investigators recently concluded that alarm fatigue was a factor in the death of a cardiac patient at Massachusetts General Hospital in January.

The patient’s heart rate gradually declined, then stopped, over a 20-minute period, but none of the 10 nurses on duty that morning recalled hearing the alarms or seeing the scrolling alarm messages on three hallway signs.  While alarms are designed to draw attention to patient problems, they go off so frequently that healthcare staff tend to tune them out after awhile.  Call it “the boy who cried wolf” syndrome.

The ECRI institute, a research institute based in Pennsylvania that specializes in medical devices, listed alarms on patient monitoring devices as the number two hazard on its top 10 list of health technology hazards.

Nurses at Johns Hopkins Hospital recently conducted a quality improvement initiative to decrease alarm fatigue and improve patient care.  A key component of the initiative was tailoring alarm parameters to individual patients — an intervention that eventually led to a 40% reduction in critical care alarms.

Are alarms a problem in your hospital?

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Jennifer Fink, RN, BSN

Jennifer is a professional freelance writer with over eight years experience as a hospital nurse. She has clinical experience in adult health, including med-surg, geriatrics and transplant; she also has a particular interest in women’s health and cancer care. Jennifer has written a variety of health and parenting articles for national publications.

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2 Responses to Nurses suffer alarm fatigue

  1. Nicole

    WOW this story so speaks to my heart. I was recently admitted to an Army hospital in San Antonio, Texas.My alarms on my heart rate and IV’s went off a lot. Being a nursing student I would shut off the IV alarms whenever I could, but there was nothing I could do about the heart rate alarms. It was very annoying and frustrating. I know that the alarms are frustrating to the nurses but they are also very frustrating to the patient and the family. My heart actually stopped because of a medication reaction,. If it wasn’t for the fact that my husband was in the room. I mostly likely would have died because the nurses on the floor had alarm fatigue.

    Thanks for publishing this story!!!!!!!!

  2. Cathy M

    Wow.. 10 nurses didn’t notice an emergent alarm for 20+ min. That is very sad. What about a monitor tech or the aids or a supervisor —anyone? I’m sorry for the family and for the nurses who were probably overworked, but shame on those involved for not CONTINUALLY speaking up about stressful working conditions. It is up to every nurse to be a voice for safe working conditions.