Healthcare Technology Featured Article

November 14, 2011

Study Finds that Beeping Monitors Pose Major Health Problem

OK. So we’re still not sure whether our cell phones might give us cancer. But according to a new study, it’s nowhere near the top health technology hazard.

Greg Webb at injuryboard blognetwork writes that an evaluation by the ECRI Institute of Plymouth found that alarms on monitors meant to protect patients actually may do them harm. The ECRI Institute met recently to list the top 10 technical hazards for patients. According to ECRI, “the alarms found on cardiac monitors, infusion pumps and ventilators are the worst culprits,” Webb reports.

According to Webb, the ECRI Institute describes itself as “an independent, non-profit organization that researches the best approaches to improving the safety, quality, and cost-effectiveness of patient care.”  The organization just released its report on the  health technology hazards for 2012.

But apparently this is not new. Webb reports that in February, The Boston Globe published articles by Liz Kowalczyk on technology hazards in hospitals, focusing on beeping sensors or monitors “which can numb or distract hospital staff” with unfortunate results, as she wrote.

The biggest problem? Hospital staff stops hearing the sensors; they become part of the background noise, writes Kowalczyk. And this isn’t the only problem. Sometimes the device is faulty or broken, or its simple “alarm fatigue,” what happens when medical personnel don’t react urgently enough to an alarm that indicates a patient is crashing, according to Webb’s story. “Sometimes they don’t hear the alarm — sometimes they just don’t react quickly enough,” he reports.

According to Webb, between 2005 and 2010, more than 200 deaths of hospital patients throughout the United States were tracked to problems with alarms on patient monitors that track heart function, breathing, and other vital signs.

Sometimes monitors can even interfere with healing. Kowalczyk writes in another story that research has shown “that depriving people of sleep weakens their immune systems.” One study even found that healthy adults vaccinated for Hepatitis A produced fewer antibodies to the virus if they didn’t get enough sleep the night after vaccination.

And hospitals are only getting noisier. Kowalcyzk writes that a noise expert who did a study for the Veterans Administration found that hospitals are three times as loud now as they were in the 1960’s, when studies first began. And a study conducted at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore found nighttime noise reaching 70 decibels in five cancer, pediatric, and medical surgical units, according to Kowalcyzk’s story.

While alarm monitors were, of course, intended to help save lives by alerting doctors and nurses to the fact that a patient needs immediate help, the increased use of “beeping monitors can become [as] meaningless as ‘white noise’ or background music as nurses and other medical personnel become desensitized — sometimes leaving patients in trouble without anyone responding to help fix the situation,” Webb writes.

Deborah DiSesa Hirsch is an award-winning health and technology writer who has worked for newspapers, magazines and IBM in her 20-year career. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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