Alarm fatigue is a dangerous problem in today’s healthcare system. Nurses and other clinical staff become overloaded and desensitized to alert noises because of the number of them that go off so regularly. A noisy and work-disruptive environment such as this can be distracting, and in some instances it may contribute to issues with providing proper care to patients. One shocking statistic from 2005-2008 showed that there were more than 560 alarm-related deaths in the United States that resulted from this issue. 

What Is Alarm Fatigue?

Alarm fatigue is mental exhaustion that results from sensory overload when clinicians are exposed to a multitude of alarms and sounds in the hospital workplace. These alarms can signal anything from patient need to equipment malfunction to intercom buzzing to paging alerts. Because they are saturated in these noises in their workplace, healthcare providers easily grow accustomed to them. They then risk not noticing or having a delayed reaction to alerts that they actually need to respond to.

Unfortunately, medical technology often contributes to this issue. Studies have shown that over 85 percent of clinical alarms are false, with an average of a million alarms going off in a week in one hospital that was studied. Another hospital also reported 5,300 alarms in a day, most of which were false, and a children’s hospital reported 350 alarms in an ICU per patient per day. 

Alarm fatigue affects healthcare provider professionalism and caregiving performance. It also causes a disruptive, uncomfortable and potentially risky healing environment for patients.

Solutions to Alarm Fatigue

The simplest way to solve the problem of alarm fatigue is to improve clinical communications overall. With changes made to make it more effective, interprofessional collaboration will improve. From there this collaboration will help prevent ineffective communication in healthcare and foster an environment in which attending to patient needs is much easier and cheaper.

Analyze alarm settings

Analyzing and changing alarm settings and defining a new strategy for hospital communications is a good start. The Physician-Patient Alliance for Health and Safety lays out a list of solutions that include:

  • Establishing guidelines for alarms and notifications that indicate whether an alarm is necessary or unnecessary
  • Doing inventory of and inspecting all alarm-capable medical devices to determine proper settings
  • Getting all medical staff on board with a new alarm management strategy

Evidence-based practices and analysis can help clinical staff determine which settings need to change, be reduced or be eliminated entirely.

Customize alarms

Going beyond regular inspection and analysis, another solution is to customize alarms to individual team members and care units. Funneling notifications and alerts to individual devices like handhelds and wearables will reduce the amount of unnecessary noise in a healthcare environment and still get alerts to staff who need them. In this way, and through eliminating unnecessary and false alarms, clinical staff will know better what alerts apply to them.

Regular inspections

Set up a regular inspection of alarms and communication tools by an interprofessional alarm management team. This kind of teamwork in healthcare will ensure that proper policies and procedures are established and enforced for the use of alarms.

This interprofessional team, which should include members of multiple healthcare departments, administration and IT, will regularly analyze and maintain equipment and alarm systems. Doing this regularly will reduce the effects of poor communication in healthcare and create an environment of communication stability within the healthcare organization. This in turn will improve the patient experience and increase patient satisfaction.

HIPAA privacy rules

It’s important in the midst of these changes to place and maintain proper security measures, as HIPAA security rules must be followed. So when customizing alerts and other communication forms, ensuring that protected health information (PHI) remains private and HIPAA compliant is a priority. Enforcing HIPAA-required regulations through improved communication measures also has the potential to help reduce alarm fatigue.

Code Lavender

Managing alarms in this way will also improve Code Lavender conditions. Code Lavender is a hospital communication code used when clinical staff have become mentally or emotionally compromised by a stressful situation. In this scenario, a support team is alerted to provide assistance to the caregiver. Reducing alarm fatigue will protect clinical staff from becoming overstressed and therefore unable to perform at peak ability. Proper alarm management will also increase the effectiveness of Code Lavender responses, notifying support teams more quickly so they can quickly assist whichever staff member is in need.

Joint Commission

The Joint Commission also has established regulations to reduce alarm fatigue in nursing. Their goal is not only to prevent clinical staff from becoming ineffective, but also to change how alarm fatigue impacts patient safety. Following their guidelines for alarm management, which include determining appropriate alarm settings, who should be involved in maintenance, monitoring and response expectations and more, will help hospitals prevent alarm fatigue and also promote more effective communication in healthcare.

How Vocera can help

Improved medical communication technology is an excellent way to go about combating alarm fatigue, since it offers many varied customization and notification options.

Technology from Vocera medical communications is a prime example of this. They are aware of the effects of alarm fatigue, and with their software and devices, clinicians can be assured of support for more effective communication and collaboration in healthcare.

Alarm Fatigue PowerPoint

For the purpose of communicating solutions to alarm fatigue, we’ve created a PowerPoint to help illustrate what we’ve just discussed. We hope that it will prove useful to any healthcare organization seeking to improve their communication strategies.