Hospitals use many different machines to monitor and record the vital signs of patients, including heart rate, blood pressure and more. When a patient's vital signs drop below a particular threshold, it triggers an alarm designed to alert doctors and hospital staff that the patient is in danger. While these alarms were designed to help doctors save lives and prevent medical errors, a new study indicates that the number of alarms may be contributing to a number of deaths each year.

According to a report recently published by the Joint Commission, a nonprofit healthcare accreditation organization, the proliferation of alarms and lack of standardization among medical device manufacturers has caused "alarm fatigue" among hospital staff. This fatigue means that doctors and nurses sometimes ignore alarms at critical moments, which can lead to delays in treatment and even death.

The desensitization experienced by hospital staff is, to a certain extent, understandable. Some machines beep when there is an emergency, while others beep when there is some sort of routine technical problem. Unfortunately, there is no industry wide standard governing which events trigger audible alarms.

Number of deaths likely higher than indicated

While the Joint Commission's report shows that the overuse of alarms in hospitals is a significant problem, early indications are that it may have underestimated the number of accidents caused by alarm fatigue. According to Joint Commission statistics, there were 80 deaths and 13 serious injuries from January 2009 to June 2012 where alarm desensitization was a factor. The Joint Commission received its information from hospitals themselves. Information from the federal Food and Drug Administration indicates, however, that there were more than 500 deaths between January 2005 and June 2010 where alarm desensitization was a factor.

The disparity between estimates by the Joint Commission and the FDA is most likely due to differences in the ways each organization collects information. For example, FDA reports may include information about a machine malfunction that was not a contributing factor in a patient's death. These differences do, however, help illustrate one difficulty in solving this issue: in some cases, ignoring an alarm may cause a long chain of events that eventually lead to a patient's death. As time passes, it becomes more and more difficult to identify the missed alarm as a factor.

No matter the situation, no patient should lose his life because hospital staff simply ignored a piece of equipment. It is clear that further steps are necessary to help address this serious issue.