Are Hospitals So Noisy that They're Killing People?

New evidence has found that all the sounds hospital machines make may be causing doctors and nurses to make mistakes.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room, you'll hear a variety of buzzes, beeps, and bloops. But all those sounds don't just fade into the background for hospital workers. The sounds create confusion that affects how health-care workers do their jobs. A Boston Globe article discussed this syndrome:

They call it “alarm fatigue.’’ Monitors help save lives, by alerting doctors and nurses that a patient is — or soon could be — in trouble. But with the use of monitors rising, their beeps can become so relentless, and false alarms so numerous, that nurses become desensitized — sometimes leaving patients to die without anyone rushing to their bedside. On a 15-bed unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, staff documented an average of 942 alarms per day — about 1 critical alarm every 90 seconds.


Eventually the total amount of technology being infused into hospitals creates an over-stimulating environment that can cause health-care workers to miss critical moments.

At Tobey Hospital in Wareham, nurses failed to heed a different type of warning on a September morning in 2008. An elderly man’s electrocardiogram displayed a “flat line’’ for more than two hours because the battery in his heart monitor had died. While nurses checked on him, no one changed the battery. The man suffered a heart attack and was found unresponsive and without a pulse.


In cases where nurses are not able to respond, postmortem interviews reveal that nurses could not even recall that the alarms went off. At Massachusetts General Hospital the easy solution has been to hire employees whose sole job is to monitor alarms in order to get to patients quickly. As technology has a larger role to play in how we are treated, is there a step missing that can reduce the amount of information health-care workers are exposed to?

Photo (flickr), Creative Commons 2.0, by boliston.

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