Alarm Fatigue is Not the Only Serious Alarm Issue for Nursing Teams

Posted by Brenda Aubin, RN, BSN on October 21, 2016

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Alarm fatigue has gotten a lot of press over the past few years, but it’s not the only dangerous alarm-related issue facing hospitals. A lesser-known condition is finally getting some much needed attention. It’s called “auditory masking,” and like its cousin, alarm fatigue, it threatens the safety of patients and the sanity of the nursing teams who care for them.

In a nutshell, auditory masking occurs when people cannot discern a specific sound (alarm) due to the constant presence of a second sound or multiple sounds (the beeps and bells associated with various patient monitoring devices). Until recently, it has been difficult to detect, but a new algorithm for pinpointing the presence of auditory masking holds great promise for ushering the standard for patient alarm systems into the 21st century.

Andrew Boyd, Assistant Professor of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is part of the team that was recently awarded a research grant to work with the developers of IEC 60601-1-8—the international standard for patient alarm systems in hospitals—to improve the standard based on new data and research. Perhaps most notably, emphasis will be placed on decreasing the likelihood of “auditory masking” in future patient monitoring equipment.

The original IEC standard was created with good intentions—to help make important or emergency patient alarms discernible from the dozens of other sounds in a hospital setting. What many caregivers, patients and even providers don’t know is that all hospital alarms are required to meet this standard. Consequently, all manufacturers and device makers design their alarm systems for hospitals based on the standard and its melodies. More and more, we’re discovering that this acoustic-dependent system leads to sensory overload for clinicians and nurses due to the constant presence of multiple beeps and alarms in hospitals. Alarms become indiscernible over time. Enter “auditory masking” and alarm fatigue.

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Regardless of how flawed the technology or the alarm system may be, nurses today are held responsible for missing patient alarms. What’s worse, the manufacturers of legacy patient alarm systems have little to no incentive to improve their existing alarm systems because they still meet a standard that was set many years ago, before we knew what we know today about auditory masking and the drawbacks of an antiquated, highly subjective system.

The bottom line, as Dr. Boyd put it, is that the system is still setting up our health professionals to fail. We agree. That is why Amplion’s alarm management capabilities were developed in a completely new way, with clinicians, nurses and ease of use in the forefront. Our system doesn’t rely on melodious sounds to alert nurses. When alarms sound, nurses get messages sent directly to their phones. Masking becomes a non-issue, and the precision with which staff can respond to alarms enables a patient care system that is safer, more effective and more measurable.

We understand what’s at stake with a missed alarm, and we’re looking forward to the changes in standards for alarm systems that Dr. Boyd’s research will bring.

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Topics: Blog, Alarm Fatigue

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