Sunday’s edition (February 13, 2011) of the the Boston Globe online (boston.com) tells a chilling story of how many times the alarms used to monitor patients go unheard and unheeded by medical staff leading to death or catastrophic injuries for patients throughout this country. The story, which was a two part series (for the second installment, see For nurses, it’s a constant dash to respond to alarms) by Globe reporter Liz Kowalczyk, narrates numerous incidents in which alarms simply went unnoticed, ignored or unmonitored. Numerous other issues such as lack of education of hospital staff as to how to properly connect the devices, failures to realize the batteries had gone dead, turning the alarms so low in volume they could not be heard, taping over amplification systems to avoid the “annoyance” of the alarms and the like are also chronicled in this series. While it is documented by an analysis of the FDA’s database of adverse events involving medical devices that 216 patients died nationwide between 2005 and mid-2010, it is also certain that this number of alarm-related deaths is probably much higher. The ECRI Institute, which was hired by the Globe to analyze the FDA database, believes that the health care industry under-reports these cases to the FDA.
Some examples of alarm-related deaths
Since links to the Globe’s original articles are provided above, I will not go into the level of detail that is otherwise available through reading the original reports. Here is a sampling of the types of “alarm failures” leading to patient deaths:
- staff misprogrammed complicated monitors
- staff had forgotten to turn the monitors on
- batteries had gone dead leading and failed to function (one instance where a man had a “flat line” for more than two hours that went undetected)
- defective wires or connections on the monitors
- malfunction or design flaws in the monitoring devices
- staff ignored the device warnings because of “alarm fatigure
According to one computation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in one 15 bed unit as to how often alarms go off during the course of day, it was documented that there were 942 alarms per day – “about 1 critical alarm every 90 seconds.” There is no doubt that the number of alarms and the clinical settings in which they are used have increased over the years. As Ms. Kowalczyk noted, “[W]ith the use of monitors rising, their beeps can become so relentless, and false alarms so numerous, that nurses can become desensitized – sometimes leaving patients to die without anyone rushing to their bedside.”
In some cases, busy nurses have not heard or ignored alarms warning of failing batteries or other problems not considered life-threatening. But even the highest-level crisis alarms, which are typically faster and higher-pitched, can go unheeded. At one undisclosed US hospital last year, manufacturer Philips Healthcare, based in Andover, found that one of its cardiac monitors blared at least 19 dangerous-arrhythmia alarms over nearly two hours but that staff, for unexplained reasons, temporarily silenced them at the central nursing station without “providing therapy warranted for this patient.’’ The patient died, according to Philips’s report to federal officials.
Keep in mind that many of these alarms are not only audible in the patient rooms; they also sound at the central nurse’s station. In some instances, hospitals have put up hallway speakers for nurses to hear the alarms more readily. In other facilities, in addition to audible alarms, various pieces of critical data information (e.g. heart rhythm, heart rate) are visible on displays at nurses stations and in some places, it is reported, “on brightly colored scrolling signs in corridors.”
The article quotes one nurse at Boston Medical Center, who addresses some of the issues at the heart of this “alarm fatigue” phenomenon.
Everyone who walks through the door gets a monitor. We have 17 [types of alarms that can go off at any time. They all have different pitches and different sounds. You hear alarms all the time. It becomes...background
False Alarms - the cry wolf issue
It is well known that some alarms can go off when a patient sits up, coughs, turns or makes other normal movements. According to the Globe report, "'[s]ome studies have found that more than 85 percent of the alarms are false.” I have no idea how this statistic was compiled, but even if it is accurate (which is debatable), that still leaves dozens if not hundreds (if not thousands) of alarms going off daily in every hospital throughout this country that are an indication of a patient in need of rapid response life-saving care.
Another nurse is quoted by the Globe in expressing both the frustration and the need for attentiveness when the alarm goes off. “You have to respond to the alarm[, b]ut there are some days when you feel you’re just running from alarm to alarm. It can be exasperating.”
The short answer appears to be: there is no easy, quick fix. Here are some of the measures institutions have taken to address this problem:
- working with engineers at prestigious institutions (e.g. MIT’s work with Boston’s Children’s Hospital) to develop more sophisticated monitors to identify true crisis alarms.
- hiring of dedicated monitor technicians and/or nurses, who man the central nurses’ station to triage alarms.
- specialized education programs to avoid misprogramming or connection mistakes due to lack of knowledge by staff
- establishing tighter standards of which patients should be connected to alarmed monitors – to cut down on the “background noise” of alarms.
- replacement of old equipment for more advanced, accurate alarm/monitor systems
- implementation of new programs in-hospital to require bioengineers to check the monitors daily to make sure they are working properly.
- implementation of standardized settings on machines so that alarms are not turned so low they are non longer audible. (One case of a patient death was attributed to staff turning the the “vexatious” alarm down to a 40% of full volume – no one responded to an arrhythmia alarm for 40 minutes because no one heard the reduced volume alarm during that time.)
- changing batteries every day in monitors to make sure they are, in fact, charged and working
The Blame Game
As you might suspect, the finger-pointing that takes place after a patient is found dead or severely injured is rampant. As the Globe reports, “Initially, hospitals almost always blame the monitor’s alarm for not sounding when it should have, according to reports. But the company investigations show the assertion is often false.”
In 40 of the cases reviewed by the Globe, the alarms did not sound, usually because the staff had not properly programmed or turned on the machines.; in only eight cases was there a malfunction or design flaw.
[I]n nearly 100 cases, manufacturers ere unable to determine exactly what went wrong, often because they didn’t have enough information, or they told federal regulators they still were reviewing the death.
Where to from here?
While I certainly don’t have to contend with the incessant noise of alarms going off all day long, nor am I required to jump away from what I’m doing to respond to a false alarm, I can’t help but think that in a health industry as advanced as ours allegedly is, there must be some steps that can readily be taken so that others don’t die because some nurse has “alarm fatigue,” or a battery died, or the volume was turned down too low to avoid the annoyance of the alarm or some other ill-conceived and unacceptable reason.
What suggestions do you have for the healthcare industry to deal with this problem? Have you ever worked in a setting where this is a problem? If so, how did you and/or your institution deal with this issue? There are a lot of smart people in bioengineering and in our health institutions; why is this still such a problem in a country that claims to be so advanced?
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