The February 13, 2011 Boston Globe has a disturbing report about how alarms can blend in with ambient background for healthcare workers. This really is where usability and quality assurance and medical informatics and medical IT all need to come together, no? But that would require money and training, and I can tell you as someone finishing a PhD focusing on medical cognitive science and medical informatics, these are in short supply. I have written previously about how a checklist evidently can lessen medical error, and sometimes there is (relatively) low-hanging fruit where a modest investment can yield impressive savings, but solving the problems written about here I think are more often not going to be cheap, quick, or easy. The devices themselves typically represent massive expense. What we would need is a holistic, integrated usability analysis of the sort that human-factors engineers perform for NASA or the cockpit of an aircraft. This isn’t cheap though.
“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.
These were just two of more than 200 hospital patients nation wide whose deaths between January 2005 and June 2010 were linked to problems with alarms on patient monitors that track heart function, breathing, and other vital signs, according to an investigation by The Boston Globe. As in these two instances, the problem typically wasn’t a broken device. In many cases it was because medical personnel didn’t react with urgency or didn’t notice the alarm.
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.
In some cases, busy nurses have not heard or ignored alarms warning of failing batteries or other problems not considered life-threatening. But even the highest-level crisis alarms, which are typically faster and higher-pitched, can go unheeded. At one undisclosed US hospital last year, manufacturer Philips Healthcare, based in Andover, found that one of its cardiac monitors blared at least 19 dangerous-arrhythmia alarms over nearly two hours but that staff, for unexplained reasons, temporarily silenced them at the central nursing station without “providing therapy warranted for this patient.’’ The patient died, according to Philips’s report to federal officials.
In other instances, staff have misprogrammed complicated monitors or forgotten to turn them on.
The Globe enlisted the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit health care research and consulting organization based in Pennsylvania, to help it analyze the Food and Drug Administration’s database of adverse events involving medical devices. The institute listed monitor alarms as the number-one health technology hazard for 2009. Its review found 216 deaths nationwide from 2005 to the middle of 2010 in which problems with monitor alarms occurred.
But ECRI, based on its work with hospitals, believes that the health care industry underreports these cases and that the number of deaths is far higher.”