IV Pump Alarm Management: How Alarm Fatigue Impacts Patient Safety

Hospitals and healthcare facilities will often rely on technology to dispense alerts and subsequently safeguard patients. On the surface, this would seem to be a wholly positive advancement. But in practice, negatives may emerge.

Today’s medical equipment, including smart pumps, typically contain alarm systems. These features sound like a great idea at first. But realistically, an over-abundance of medical equipment alarms can lead to what’s known as alarm fatigue. Alarm fatigue was actually found to be a top concern at 19 out of 20 U.S. hospitals in 2013, according to a survey conducted by the Physician-Patient Alliance for Health and Safety. During the last 30 years, the variety of alarms on medical devices has increased from six to 40; the most critically ill patients in hospitals and healthcare centers may experience upwards of 45 alarms every hour. One hospital ICU recorded more than 2.5 million alarms in a single month.

These alarms were intended to prove safety, but this phenomenon can actually harm both patients and staff members. When there’s an alarm for every event, it’s essentially impossible to discern which events need to take priority. In a sense, we end up tuning the alarms out. Further, 80% to 99% of medical device alarms do not require intervention or are believed to be clinically insignificant. In other words, many of these alarms are actually not necessary for patient health and safety. In some cases, medical staff will take unnecessary risks by disabling the alarms in order to prevent alarm fatigue. Even if the alarms remain enabled, the incessant sound of alarm bells going off can cause avoidable delays or a failure to respond at all. That, in turn, can cause substantial patient injury or fatality. The takeaway: medical equipment alarms should make us safer, but this tactic may actually backfire due to desensitization.

Tragically, because medical equipment alarms are so common — and so often do not indicate a true medical emergency — staff members are likely to ignore the ones that are important. When essential alarms are missed or experience a delayed response, patients and healthcare facilities will both suffer. And while 72.9% of all U.S. hospitals were using smart pumps in 2013, the alarm systems on these smart IV infusion pumps are nearly impossible to distinguish from the alarms of other devices.

Medical professionals all across the country are calling for major overhauls in alarm system management. And it could all start with improving the existing alarm systems included in IV infusion pumps. Because these devices are among the most widely used on a national scale, making changes to their alarms could have a colossal impact. Professionals have suggested changing the audible tone of the alarm itself in order to differentiate this alarm from others in a room or unit. The tones should also differ based on the priority of the event to help overworked medical personnel better distinguish between problems. In addition, experts recommend that insignificant alarms — meaning events that really do not require medical intervention — should be eliminated. That may sound rash at first, but it could go a long way in preventing alarm fatigue. If only the important medical events are accompanied by an alarm, medical staff members will be able to think clearly and take action, rather than simply wanting the incessant noise to stop. Ideally, alarm improvements would also involve pump integration. This could improve clinician awareness when treating patients. It would also be preferred if smart devices could communicate with each other to ensure any alarms are dealt with properly.

These alarm advancements have not come to fruition just yet, but that doesn’t mean your facility should abandon your use of IV infusion pumps. These smart pumps can and do improve patient safety and overall experience. However, you will need to prioritize employee training to ensure existing alarms are addressed properly. Even when the alarms produced by your facility’s IV infusion pumps do not indicate a medical emergency, they must be dealt with according to the protocol without delay. By discussing the issue of alarm fatigue and promoting the prioritization of response to these alarms, you can further improve patient safety at your facility.

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