What is Alarm Fatigue (and Why Does It Matter)?
The beep of a cardiac monitor. The low tone of an oxygen monitor. The audible click of an IV pump. Healthcare facilities are a cacophony of sound every day. Throughout a given day, it’s estimated a patient will hear as many as 350 alarms. Now, imagine how many a nurse hears daily. Is it any wonder healthcare professionals unconsciously learn to tune these alarms out over time? Hardly. But it is a dangerous phenomenon: one called “alarm fatigue.”
Nonstop noises and overstimulation at hospitals
Healthcare facilities are highly stimulating environments. This fast-paced and high-stress atmosphere can be challenging for nurses responsible for providing patient care while also managing a wide range of technology and equipment. One of the major challenges nurses face in this environment is alarm fatigue.
The constant noise and distraction can lead to a decline in patient safety and increase the risk of medical errors.
What is alarm fatigue, and why is it concerning?
Alarm fatigue occurs when nurses become desensitized to the constant sounds and alerts from medical equipment, such as patient monitors and IV pumps. As a result, they may miss critical alarms indicating a patient's condition is deteriorating or delay responding to an alarm.
Nuisance alarms or nonactionable noises — triggered by normal patient conditions or equipment functions — exacerbate the problem of alarm fatigue. These alarms can confuse and distract healthcare workers from responding to critical alarms.
To combat alarm fatigue, healthcare facilities must implement strategies such as:
- Reducing unnecessary alarms
- Using alarm notification systems
- Providing training and education
- Giving staff adequate breaks from the noise
Nurses must tend to their well-being by taking breaks, engaging in self-care activities, and communicating with colleagues and managers about any persistent concerns or challenges.
How to handle alarm fatigue
Alarm fatigue poses a danger to healthcare workers and patients. It can lead to negative patient outcomes such as delayed treatment, misdiagnosis, and even death in extreme cases. Nearly 99% of alarms at a hospital aren’t actionable (i.e., “false”), so it can be hard to focus on all of them when so many are part of normal protocol.
To avoid alarm fatigue, nurses must be intently attuned to alarms and respond quickly and appropriately when they sound. Here are some strategies that nurses can use to keep themselves alert and responsive to alarms:
- Prioritize alarm management. Train yourself to prioritize alarms by recognizing critical and actionable ones.
- Take breaks. Regularly rest and recharge to avoid feeling overwhelmed by constant noise and distractions.
- Communicate with colleagues. Share any concerns or issues revolving around an inability to concentrate.
- Act on alarms. When an alarm sounds, always act on it, regardless of how insignificant it may seem.
- Seek additional training. Request training on alarm management and response protocols to stay vigilant.
Effective, actionable leadership is also crucial to combating alarm fatigue. Leaders should be actively engaged in promoting a culture of alarm management by providing training and education, promoting teamwork and communication, and encouraging nurses to take ownership of alarm management and always act on alarms. Remember, alarms are important; it’s up to nursing professionals to prioritize them and to serve the best interests of their patients.