The assessment is blunt: "Medical alarm systems are out of control. Every day, around the clock, hundreds of auditory alarm signals sound for every patient, thousands of alarm signals chime in every unit, tens of thousands of alarm signals blare throughout every hospital. Clinicians are fatigued, confused and overloaded with sensory alerts — or left in the dark without actionable information — from this cacophony of sounds and signals."

That was the conclusion from a summit  convened last October by a variety of organizations concerned about so-called alarm fatigue, including the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Joint Commission.

In response to the growing concern, those three organizations — and others — have joined to explore solutions to what they acknowledge is a complex problem impacting patients and caregivers.

An alarm steering committee, with an expected 14 members representing the Joint Commission, the FDA, physicians, nurses, device manufacturers and other experts, tenta­tively is scheduled to meet this summer to explore ways to improve medical device alarm management, says Leah Lough, executive vice president of AAMI and executive director of the AAMI Foundation, Arlington, Va., which spearheads the initiative.

A December 2011 report about the summit identifies seven clarion themes:

  • Deepen all stakeholders' understanding of use.
  • Improve alarm system management.
  • Improve alarm system integration.
  • Reconcile challenges and differences in use in departments throughout the hospital.
  • Strengthen medical electrical equipment standards to promote success.
  • Clarify regulatory requirements.
  • Share best practices and lessons learned.

ECRI Institute, another summit convener, raised alarm hazards to No. 1 on its 2012 list of Top 10 Health Technology Hazards from the No. 2 hazard in 2011 and 2010. Additionally, Lough says a survey of AAMI's members determined that dealing with medical de­vice alarms is the industry's top challenge this year.

The summit report says that medical device alarms can protect patients when they work as intended. Unfortunately, the multitude of devices with alarms has caused caregivers to experience sensory overload to the point of becoming overwhelmed, confused or misinformed.

While the industry explores long-term solutions, more immediate improvement is possible, says Lough. "Some hospitals are trying to take steps to lessen the noise and figure this out in their own facilities. We're trying to learn from their experiences and get some research going to try to develop ways to help everybody, [to] help [put] all facilities and all caregiving institutions on a pathway to try and address this issue," she says.

The report is available on AAMI's website at www.aami.org/events/eventdetail.aspx?ItemNumber=1283.