Acoustics researchers work to improve ineffective hospital alarms

The average hospital patient can generate dozens of alarms every day. It's no surprise that clinicians navigating healthcare environments with hundreds of patients can quickly become accustomed to a near-constant low-level state of alert and develop alarm fatigue. In fact, research suggests 90 percent of hospital alarms don't trigger any action from hospital staff.

Ignored alarms, and those that fail to sound when they are triggered, are classified as alarm errors, and can impact patient safety, according to Ilene Busch-Vishniac, who presented her acoustical research on hospital alarms at the Acoustical Society of America's Spring 2016 Meeting on May 27 in Salt Lake City. Ms. Busch-Vishniac presented an error model for hospital alarms, based on whether they sound or not.

"In each case, alarms reflect a medically urgent situation or they don't," Ms. Busch-Vishniac said in a statement. "For each situation, the response is either appropriate or inappropriate. This means there are eight possible scenarios associated with alarms, so we can estimate how often each occurs and how often errors occur.

Although some research suggests the likelihood an alarm will trigger an adverse patient outcome is low, Ms. Busch-Vishniac said the alarms rarely serve their true purpose of alerting medical staff to an urgent situation. More often than not what harms patients is when alarms that should sound don't do so. In order to address this, Ms. Busch-Vishniac said she plans to pursue methods of improving hospital alarms.

"The first task is to compare the medical outcomes of patients when alarms sound within their area versus when alarms are intentionally muted and sent to staff via pagers or cell phones," she said. "This will help to establish whether alarms potentially harm patients, as well as save lives. We'll also explore when alarms should sound, which sounds should be used, and ways to make alarm systems more intelligent by combining information from multiple medical devices."

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