What Is Alarm Fatigue? Tips for Prevention

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The United States increasingly needs nurse leaders to replace a retiring workforce, care for an aging population, and lead industry transformation amid technological advancements and changing healthcare models. While nursing careers offer rewarding opportunities to impact people’s lives, nurses should be aware of certain issues that can affect patient safety and care quality.

Alarm fatigue, in particular, can cause nurses to miss important notifications and make dangerous mistakes in medical settings. It occurs when nurses are desensitized to alarms and alerts due to notification overload. The Joint Commission officially named alarm fatigue a National Patient Safety Goal in 2014, yet healthcare leaders still have a lot of work to do to prevent and alleviate the issue. According to the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI), alarm fatigue was one of the top 10 health technology hazards in 2020.

An advanced degree such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) can help equip nurse leaders with the skills to address ongoing issues such as alarm fatigue, improve working conditions in the profession, and ensure the highest levels of patient care.

A healthcare professional monitors a medical device.

Alarm Fatigue Defined

Alarm fatigue is sensory overload caused by too many alerts, beeps, and alarms. As a result, healthcare professionals can become desensitized to those signals, causing them to miss or ignore certain ones or deliver delayed responses.

The root of the problem, of course, is nurses’ exposure to too many alarms due to the prevalence of technological devices in healthcare. According to a literature review in a 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study, an ICU patient generates an average of 150-400 alarms during a nurse’s shift. Blood pressure monitors, ventilators, electrocardiogram machines, and dialysis equipment can all emit alerts and sounds.

The study also found that 85% to 99% of those alarms are false or “clinically insignificant,” giving nurses even more incentive to shut out or ignore notifications. False alarms can be triggered for a number of reasons: some devices are highly sensitive to stimuli, and sometimes a machine’s settings aren’t configured to the patient’s specific needs or the nurse’s parameters.

Effects of Alarm Fatigue

The effects of alarm fatigue are significant for both nurses and patients, impacting the delivery and quality of care. Notable consequences of alarm fatigue include nurse burnout, decreased quality of care, and dissatisfied patients.

Nurse Burnout

Alarm fatigue is a major contributor to nurse burnout, which occurs when nurses become overworked, stressed, and emotionally exhausted. According to 2019 data from the Joint Commission, burnout is one of the leading safety and quality concerns in healthcare. Nurse burnout can lead to poor performance, illness, anxiety and depression, withdrawal from responsibilities, and detachment from work experiences.

Decreased Quality of Care

Since alarm fatigue can cause nurses to miss or ignore alarms, the quality of care can suffer as a result. The Food and Drug Administration receives several hundred thousand reports of deaths, serious injuries, and malfunctions due to suspected medical device issues each year. If a nurse silences or dismisses an alarm tracking a patient’s heart rate, for example, they may fail to consider a life-threatening issue and risk putting the patient in a dangerous situation.

Dissatisfied Patients

Patients can also experience alarm fatigue and the negative effects of healthcare technology. A noisy and disruptive medical environment, for instance, can lead to anxiety, stress, and poor cooperation with care providers. Since alarm fatigue also impacts nurses’ performances on the job, it can contribute to patients’ dissatisfaction with their level of care and poor treatment outcomes.

Alarm Fatigue Prevention Tips

Nurses and healthcare leaders can help prevent, avoid, and mitigate alarm fatigue in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Optimizing nurse schedules so alerts don’t fall on one person
  • Educating staff on protocols for monitoring systems and managing alarm settings
  • Evaluating where and when alarms are clinically significant or superfluous
  • Consistently gathering nurse feedback about burnout and alarm fatigue
  • Customizing alarms based on each patient’s condition and healthcare needs
  • Designating actionable responses for each type of alert so nurses know how to respond
  • Consolidating or disabling redundant alarms
  • Properly preparing patients for the placement of device hookups and monitoring protocols
  • Categorizing alarms based on priority levels
  • Analyzing alarm data to pinpoint and predict when issues arise
  • Reducing alarm decibel levels or experimenting with different sound types
  • Regularly maintaining and updating equipment, including changing or charging batteries and installing new software

Improve the Nursing Environment and Ensure Patient Safety as a Nurse Leader

Nurse leaders play an important role in shaping the future of healthcare. With the right education and preparation, they have an opportunity to create safer, more productive working environments for professionals across the industry.

Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program is designed to help nurses advance their careers by practicing evidence-based decision-making, focusing on the tenets of preventive and compassionate care, and gaining clinical experience in their preferred settings. Students can also choose from five nurse practitioner concentrations, allowing them to pursue the track that best meets their passions and career goals.

Act today to learn how Maryville can help you become a nurse leader and innovator.

Recommended Reading

Bedside Nursing and Beyond: The Other Side of Nursing

BSN vs. MSN Degree: Career Outcome Differences

Regional vs. National Accreditation for Nursing Programs

Sources

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, “Making Healthcare Safer III: A Critical Analysis of Existing and Emerging Patient Safety Practices”

Atlassian, “Understanding and Fighting Alert Fatigue”

Biomedical Informatics Insights, “Incorporating Observed Physiological Data to Personalize Pediatric Vital Sign Alarm Thresholds”

ECRI Institute, “2020 Top 10 Health Technology Hazards”

Halo Health, “Why Alarm Fatigue in Nursing Is a Real and Present Danger”

Health Leaders Media, “The Joint Commission Tackles Nurse Burnout”

Incredible Health, “Alarm Fatigue in Nursing and How to Deal With It”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “Impact of Alarm Fatigue on the Work of Nurses in an Intensive Care Environment — A Systematic Review”

Patient Safety Authority, “Telemetry Monitoring in Pennsylvania”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Medical Device Reporting (MDR): How to Report Medical Device Problems”