Doctors, nurses, and technicians who work around patients with monitoring systems every day face a barrage of beeps, signals, and flashing lights. More often than not, the noise is indicating something benign, such as a button reset. Other times, however, the alarms can signal a life or death moment. This over-stimulation of light and sound has led to a unique phenomenon in the medical world.

Like any other sensory stimulus, repeated exposure to the alarm sounds can desensitize practitioners from taking immediate action. The effect is kind of like the story of the little boy who cried wolf: the one time an immediate response was necessary, nobody was there to help. The effect, known as “alarm fatigue,” is a growing patient concern in many health care facilities. Failing to respond in a crisis because of this type of desensitization can be a contributing factor in medical malpractice cases, making it a concern for both patients and practitioners.

How Much Trouble Does Alarm Fatigue Really Cause?

One study from the University of California, San Francisco in 2014 evaluated the pervasiveness of the problem by assessing cardiac monitor alarm soundings, their accuracy, and the causes of false alarms. The data from the study indicated that alarms signaled over 2.5 million times for 461 ICU patients across four units, treated in a medical center over the course of one month. 89% of the alarms were false, caused by algorithm problems.

At John Hopkins Hospital, the rate of alarm signals in one ICU unit per day was 771. 80% of the alarm signals during that day were low-priority signals. The hospital evaluated its “alarm fatigue” problem after learning that eight patients in unnamed hospitals across the state of Maryland had suffered from some kind of adverse event because of an alarm error. In the period of two years, four died as a result of the error.

The problem is so pervasive in the healthcare system right now that the Joint Commission, the nonprofit organization the U.S. relies on to accredit over 20,000 health care facilities, has developed a long-term plan for handling it. According to the plan, in 2014, hospitals had to establish an alarm hierarchy to help practitioners prioritize their work. In 2016, those policies will need to include specific components required by the Joint Commission, and hospitals will also need to have an educational program in place.

The Joint Commission’s plan was founded, in part, based on the information from its event database, which recorded 98 adverse alarm-related patient events from 2009-2012. Of those, 80 patients died and 113 suffered from permanent functional loss.

How Can I Protect Myself and My Family from Alarm Fatigue-Related Incidents?

Knowing about the problem alarm fatigue presents could help you prevent it from the beginning. Ask your healthcare providers about the policies they have in place to avoid alarm fatigue on a daily basis. Family members of patients in ICU can also take a proactive approach to the situation by watching hospital practices and listening for monitor alerts. If you notice any suspicious delay between an alarm and a response, address the concern immediately.

For anyone with concerns that a family member has suffered needlessly or died because of an alarm fatigue-related mistake, consider seeking legal advice. The staff in the ICU and around the hospital is responsible for caring for patients and responding to equipment monitoring appropriately. Any disregard for the standard practice of care may be an indication of malpractice, which should be addressed in the medical and legal system. For more information, contact a Charleston, West Virginia medical malpractice lawyer at Tiano O’Dell, PLLC today.