Combatting alarm fatigue in clinical care

Reducing sensory overload on clinicians due to the excessive number of alarms

‘Alarm fatigue’ is recognized throughout clinical care as a safety issue relevant to both staff and patients, as well as an important issue for the multi-billion dollar medical device industry. It is generally thought of as a sensory overload, which clinicians experience due to an excessive number of alarms. This leads to a desensitization, resulting in missed alarms that can cause patient decline or even death. A substantial part of the problem is that the audible alarms currently used are poorly specified from both a psychoacoustic and cognitive psychological perspective. Working closely with key policymakers and committees, Prof Judy Edworthy has led a project which has resulted in the update of the alarms specified in a global medical device safety standard (IEC 60601-1-8), to be published in July 2020. The demonstration of the superiority of these new alarms has been demonstrated through a series of peer-reviewed papers that show the development and testing of the sounds, both in the lab and in simulation. The updated standard will also contain evidence-based guidance for developing and testing auditory alarms and new alarm categories, written by Prof Edworthy.

The updated alarm signals are publicly available for immediate implementation by manufacturers. The sounds themselves will have an impact on the soundscape of all areas where clinical alarms are used, and will make that environment less stressful and more conducive to clinical care. In addition, clinicians find the new alarms more memorable, more localizable, and less fatiguing, than the old alarms. Transition from the old to the new alarms will benefit clinical care and safety in all healthcare areas where alarms are used. 

Watch a short explanatory video produced by the journal Anesthesiology.