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Study examines why nurses can be slow to respond to patient alarms

Ask any nurse who works in a hospital setting about the number of beeps and buzzes they hear on any given shift and you're more than likely to get an earful.

That's because patients are connected to various machines, which in addition to making their own beeps, are designed to emit alarms in the event potentially dangerous medical events are detected. While this is certainly logical, experts that many of these alarms are actually false, and that this, in turn, has resulted in a condition known as "alarm fatigue" in which medical professionals start to assume that alarms are false and delay their response times.

The problem has become so acute that the Joint Commission, the hospital accrediting organization, has actually issued new guidelines for helping combat alarm fatigue.

Interestingly enough, a group of researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia recently published the results of a study designed to learn more about nurse response times to patient alarms and the reasons behind any delays.

The study, published in the most recent edition of JAMA Pediatrics, involved researchers examining over 500 hours of video footage of 38 pediatric nurses caring for patients over a 16-month period from 2014-2015. Here, they determined that while the nurses were quick to respond to alarms signaling critical events -- a minute or less -- their response times for over 50 percent of the less than critical alarms was over 10 minutes.

As for some of the factors behind these delayed response times to noncritical alarms, they found the following:

  • Nurses caring for two or more patients averaged a response time of 10.6 minutes, while those caring for one patient averaged a response time of 3.5 minutes.
  • Nurses averaged a response time of 5.3 minutes for patients with complex needs versus 11.1 minutes for patients with general needs.
  • Nurses with a year or less of experience averaged a response time of 4.4 minutes versus 8.8 minutes for those nurses with a year or more of experience.
  • Nurses responded by an average of 6.3 minutes when a family member was not present versus 11.7 minutes when a family member was present.
  • Nurses responded to alarms from patients who had previously required intervention by an average of 5.5 minutes versus 10.7 minutes for those who previously required no intervention.

While the researchers indicated that the intuition of the nurses was largely correct, it's worth noting that a commentary to the study written by another expert in the field took a different view.

Indeed, he found the lengthy response times "astonishing" given that the study took place at a leading pediatric hospital and suggested that it meant even bigger problems would likely be present at smaller institutions. As such, he called for more studies into the issue in order to help further discussion -- and solutions -- to alarm fatigue.

It's important to understand that if you or a loved one has suffered any sort of harm owing to what you believe was medical negligence that you have rights and you have options for seeking justice.

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