Beep, Beep, Beep – Hospital Alarms Sound Mostly Without Real Cause

Are computerized hospital alarms trying to tell us too much? The beeping of monitors has become the ever-present audio wallpaper of hospital units. Medical devices monitoring patients send off alerts when something is not quite right. Heart rate is off? Beep! Pulse low? Beep Beep! Ventilator seems to be malfunctioning? Another alarm. IV medication bag almost empty — more beeps. Nurses hear them in their sleep, but for patients they can be terrifying. The thing is, the vast majority of these alarms are unnecessary. So much noise for no good reason. Unfortunately, when nurses get false alarm after false alarm, they experience a phenomenon called “alarm fatigue.” Nurses walk around the hospital unit, they hear the beeping, but it fades into the background. Interruptions have been shown to cause medical errors, and among the medical staff, nurses suffer the brunt of all that beeping, because they’re the first in line to check and see why the alarm is sounding. Alarm fatigue has become a top priority for hospitals, and researchers everywhere are looking for ways to reduce the noise. Comparing hospital alarms with the alarms in the cockpit of an airplane, engineer Keith Karn is questioning why an ICU can’t be more like a cockpit? He says pilots would never put up with all of the beeping. Karn says one important lesson medicine could learn from aviation is to streamline information, and to offer it at the right time. He says he hopes that within the next 10 years or so, alarms will finally become the useful tool they were intended to be, only alerting care providers to true problems.