Can hospitals alarms really be harmful? According to a recent study by the
Boston Globe, the answer is yes.
The article and the study behind it claim that patient alarms are so frequent
in hospitals that nurses and other health professionals begin to tune
them out. This phenomenon is referred to as “alarm fatigue.”
As detailed in the story, over the course of a shift, nurses respond to
more than a dozen types of alarms that can sound hundreds of times a day,
and many of those calls turn out to be false alarms. Over time, nurses
can become desensitized and fail to react quickly, or at all, during a
As explained by Liz Kowalczyk, the reporter who co-wrote the story, “We
wanted to see if we could find out how many patients are actually harmed
by alarm fatigue. So we analyzed reports that hospitals made to the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration over the last five years, as well as to two
states that track these types of incidents, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
We also talked to dozens of nurses, doctors who oversee patient safety
in hospitals, monitor makers, FDA officials, and also families.”
The Danger of Alarm Fatigue
The results were alarming—the newspaper says more than 200 deaths
nationwide over the past five years have been associated with problems
with patient monitor alarms, many of which involved suspected cases of
The most widely publicized case occurred in January 2010 at Massachusetts
General Hospital. An elderly man suffering a fatal heart attack was left
untreated because the crisis alarm on his cardiac monitor was turned off
and numerous lower-level alarms warning of a low heart rate were unanswered.
In the resulting investigation, the
ten nurses on duty stated that they did not recall hearing the alarms at the
central nurses’ station or seeing scrolling messages on three hallway signs.
What Can Patients and Their Families Do to Prevent Alarm Fatigue?
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to prevent alarm fatigue;
the problem is in the hands of hospitals, nurses, medical device companies,
and regulatory authorities.
However, there are steps that you can take if you or a loved one is admitted
to the hospital.
- Never turn off an alarm. If an alarm is sounding, wait for a nurse to evaluate
the situation. If no one comes in a short amount of time, go seek help.
- Pay attention for signs that something might be wrong such as changes in
color, pain, or breathing.
- Ask questions: Don’t be afraid to ask nurses what the different alarms
mean, particularly which ones are most important.