Addressing Alarm Fatigue in Nursing

by flattop341/via flickr

by flattop341/via flickr

By Amanda Anderson, a critical care nurse and graduate student in New York City currently doing a graduate placement at AJN.

“Will you please silence that alarm?!” The nurse is on the phone, and can’t reach the screaming cardiac monitor. It’s a normal request, considering that we’re working together in an ICU and the alarm has been ringing for awhile.

But her request for silencing the alarm isn’t issued to me; she’s talking to the unit clerk. Stuck in my patient’s room, I watch as this untrained staff member taps the flashing rectangle on the unit’s central monitor. Without having first been appropriately evaluated, the ringing disappears, along with the words “Multifocal PVCs.”

Later, the same unit clerk absentmindedly turns off a sounding alarm, without encouragement from a nurse. I’m floating today, and although I’ve just met her, I can’t help but ask, “Do you know what that alarm was saying? Was it accurate?”

She is clearly startled by my admonishment, but I persist. “A lot of the alarms around here do seem to be false, but what if this one wasn’t? Do you have the training to know the difference, and to report it?”

If looks could kill, the one that meets my gaze is certainly homicidal, but it’s paired with a grumbled promise to never touch the screen again. So maybe my point has stuck.

The Joint Commission wouldn’t have made improving the safety of alarm systems a 2015 National Patient Safety Goal if danger weren’t lurking, and with a direct link between response rate and our belief in an alarm’s reliability, it’s clear that nurses need to take ownership of alarm safety. A comfortable unit clerk silencing an alarm might be indicative of an alarm-saturated culture; she’s not the only person I’ve watched turning off this source of potentially life-saving information without as much as a glance—distracted nurses, uninterested interns, social workers.

We have become accustomed to an excess of alarm inaccuracies. We are so weary of the constant stimuli that we do little to understand the many functions of our alarms, edit them for each patient, or sharpen our use of these signals so that they serve their intended purpose—to tell us when help is urgently needed.

In “Combating Alarm Fatigue” (February issue), we report on an initiative focused on cardiac monitor alarms in one hospital that resulted in a marked decrease in the overall number of alarms per day and an improvement in the accuracy of these alarms. Using an interdisciplinary task force, researchers implemented simple, direct protocols—they edited which parameters made sense for each patient, ensured that electrodes were fresh and placed well, and discontinued cardiac monitoring that wasn’t needed. When they started the study, 95% of alarms each day were false; at completion, the number was reduced to 50%.

It may be easy to silence an alarm. But to tap into a screen and change the default settings to safe, effective parameters  unique to each patient, or troubleshoot a persistent patient-specific glitch, or to know how to rearrange electrodes for better readings not only requires purpose but skill.

The unit clerk started talking to me again, even though it took a few months. The other day I was floated to her unit at a time when she wasn’t working. When an alarm rang over and over in error, I noticed the unit clerk on duty hover over the monitor with finger poised and say to the nurses, “Hey! This alarm is going off. I don’t know what it means. Should I silence it?” Not quite perfect, but it seemed like progress.

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2016-11-21T13:02:55+00:00 March 2nd, 2015|Nursing, nursing perspective, Patients|5 Comments

About the Author:

I’m a nurse with a critical care background who works in administration in Manhattan. My blog is This Nurse Wonders. I also blog for Off the Charts and Healthcetera, and tweet as @ajandersonrn.

5 Comments

  1. Beth Hawkes, RN March 3, 2015 at 8:45 am

    Thank you for this revealing article. Fortunately hospitals are now required to address this issue, and make patient alarms meaningful.

  2. Peggy March 2, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    The current state of alarm management is a perfect example of “doing what we’ve always done!” This attitude, is so prevalent in healthcare, kills patients. We know it, and we still continue… I challenge anyone who reads this article to take it back to their units and start an initiative or if there is already one in place to back it wholeheartedly.
    Medical devices have the ability to adjust limits based on patient needs, policies can and should be adapted accordingly.
    Great post and I look forward to the article.

  3. Darline Jose BSN CCRN MSN Ed March 2, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    So dangerous, not following the
    Ratio law does not help either
    The excuse “we tried calling
    Everybody” is just so wrong because it is fatal. Still the consequences still
    Falls to the RN because we are accountable. What happened to the System which did not provide a safe environment for the patients and staff members. This issue is very rampant and the Ratio law is being ignored.
    According to a manager “oh come on
    Who do u think still follows that??
    And this is all I wrote……

  4. Nellie evans March 2, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    I was in the Hospital over night,and hooked up to a monitor(I am a Nurse) I called several time,for someone to help me to the bathroom,no one came,so I unhooked,and went twice. The next morning,while being discharged,the Nurse said “you have not voided since you were admitted ” I told her that I went to the bathroom twice,and that I could heard the alarms going off each time, but no one came to see why, BOY was she mad,she reported it to her Supervisor. I was not trying to get any one in trouble, BUT never trying to see why the alarms were going off??? that frightening.

  5. toughernurse March 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    This is so true! I’ve found myself silencing alarms (as a nurse) and not completely evaluating them. Thank you for bringing this topic to our attention! I’m definitely going to think before silencing alarms from now, and do better at making sure my patients are hooked to the monitor correctly, and that the settings are tailored to that patient.

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