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Excess noise from alarms puts patients at risk

The Washington Post, July 9, 2013

Walk into a hospital intensive-care unit and hear the din. The sheer number—several hundred alarms per patient per day—can cause alarm fatigue. Nurses and other workers, overwhelmed or desensitized by the constant barrage, sometimes respond by turning down the volume on the devices, shutting them off or simply ignoring them—actions that can have serious, potentially fatal, consequences. Clinicians and patient-safety advocates have warned of alarm fatigue for years, but the issue is taking on greater urgency as hospitals invest in more-complex, often-noisy devices meant to save lives. Last month,the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, directed facilities to make alarm safety a top priority or risk losing their accreditation. The commission is requiring hospitals, starting in January, to identify the alarms that pose the biggest safety risks by unnecessarily adding noise or being ignored. By 2016, hospitals must decide who has the authority to turn off alarms.