Alarm Fatigue is Way Too Real (and Scary) For Nurses

As an HCP, it is impossible to escape alarms. They follow you everywhere you go, especially when you are working in the intensive care unit (ICU). In theory, they notify you about patient condition changes and equipment failures immediately, so that medical personnel can tend to them. The reality is often more complicated than that, however. Research has found that 85 to 99% of all medical alarms are false or “clinically insignificant.”  That may not seem significant, but the noise eventually piles up. Alarm fatigue in nursing is a major problem. If you do not think it is, you are sorely mistaken. 

Nurses are still expected to stay alert throughout the whole shift, and respond immediately to these calls. The advancement of medical technology has also led to alarms being attached to more and more medical devices. To put things into perspective, hospitals will generate 150 to 400 alarms per patient. Just 40 years ago, this number was as low as 6. With all this in mind, it is no surprise that 35% percent of a nurse’s working time is spent answering these largely false alarms.

Nursing is already a very demanding profession. Staying on high alert for mostly false alarms piles on a significant amount of stress, on top of everything else. Nurses find themselves frantically scrambling between different large alarm devices, while they tend to their base duties for the day. This often causes nurse alarm fatigue, where nurses grow increasingly numb to alarms, thanks to the huge sensory overload. Either their responses are delayed or they stop answering them altogether. If left unchecked, alarm fatigue can directly lead to patient deaths. Tired nurses could leave serious patient alarms unanswered because they have grown desensitized by all the false positives. That is why alarm fatigue for nurses is a terrifying condition, for every party involved. 

What can be done to answer hospital alarm fatigue successfully? There are a number of avenues available to hospitals willing to invest in their patient safety. Reducing the number of false alarms should be the top priority of any organization. More thorough staff education, proper equipment upkeep, and examining what causes false alarms are just a couple examples of the kind of measures that hospitals must resort to. Though effective, these short term solutions can be rendered moot without longer term answers. Facilities owe it to their nurses to create a culture of continuous improvement and patient safety, as well as the right safeguard policies in place. Systemic and cultural changes will be the most effective way to combat this issue in the future. Until then, nurses and alarm fatigue will continue to be connected.