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Patients Dying in Hospitals Because of Alarm Fatigue

Closeup image of surgical mask, stethoscope, and gloves

The Boston Globe and ABC News have reported on a study released by the Joint Commission, the national organization that accredits hospitals, that shows that the constant cacophony of hospital alarms negatively impacts care. Deerfield Beach personal injury attorney firm Baker, Zimmerman and Perez has taken notice of this trend and others that impact patients—particularly those who may be able to file claims for medical malpractice.

According to the study, the average hospital employee is subjected to something like 40 alarms an hour in the course of their shift; part of the problem is that the default settings for the machines that monitor patients are sometimes not easily changed. Another contributing factor is that they are set to be so sensitive that a cough or slight movement can make them go off, even when there is no problem or emergency to deal with. As a result, staff members begin to become desensitized to the alarms. Even when they hear them, they become so accustomed to shutting them off that real emergencies are sometimes lost—and so are lives.

Some studies have revealed that more than 85% of the alarms are false; nurses complain that after a certain period the alarms become background noise. However, the results of muting or shutting off alarms without checking on them can be fatal; in one case, an 87-year-old was equipped with heart monitoring equipment with a drained battery. Because the battery went dead, the patient’s EKG showed a “flatline” for over two hours—during which time it was unchecked. During this period, the patient’s heart did in fact stop; no one knew because the telemetry unit was no longer functioning.

As any south Florida personal injury attorney will tell you—with Broward and Palm Beach Counties being home to a huge industry of health care—there is growing friction between medical professionals and the manufacturers of hospital equipment. As Dr. Richard Cook, a critical care physician and safety expert at the University of Chicago Medical Center, has pointed out, “Each box, each device, each program is claiming the attention of the human operator. The result is people are confronted with many, many alarms, only a few of which are meaningful or important.” The competitiveness of the monitor industry has been described as an “arms race for attention” of competing beeps, blips, bells, and chimes—with new monitors, complete with alarms, being added every day.

If you are uncertain of a monitor that is being used on either yourself or a loved one, it is important to be an advocate. Ask what the monitor is for, and whether it is truly necessary. In some cases, the nurse or technician will inform you that it is hospital policy; in others they will be able to explain why exactly it is necessary—for example, a heart monitor in place after heart surgery. Ask what you should do if the alarm goes off, whether it is yourself or a loved one. If you notice that the machinery is acting strangely, get the attention of a nurse or orderly and ask for assistance.

A 2011 study concluded that approximately 566 hospital deaths were a result of alarm fatigue; if you or a loved one have suffered injury or death as a result of a lack of response to a monitored emergency, you should contact Boca Raton personal injury lawyers Baker, Zimmerman and Perez. We have a great deal of experience in medical malpractice claims, and take pride in the fact that we offer free consultation—and we never charge you unless we win your case.

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