General medical-surgical units struggle with how best to use cardiac monitor alarms to alert nursing staff to important abnormal heart rates (HRs) and rhythms while limiting inappropriate and unnecessary alarms that may undermine both patient safety and quality of care. When alarms are more often false than true, the nursing staff’s sense of urgency in responding to alarms is diminished. In this syndrome of “clinical alarm fatigue,” the simple burden of alarms desensitizes caregivers to alarms. Noise levels associated with frequent alarms may also heighten patient anxiety and disrupt their perception of a healing environment. Alarm fatigue experienced by nurses and patients is a significant problem and innovative solutions are needed.
The purpose of this quality improvement study was to determine variables that would safely reduce noncritical telemetry and monitor alarms on a general medical-surgical unit where standard manufacturer defaults contributed to excessive audible alarms.
Mining of alarm data and direct observations of staff’s response to alarms were used to identify the self-reset warning alarms for bradycardia, tachycardia, and HR limits as the largest contributors of audible alarms. In this quality improvement study, the alarms for bradycardia, tachycardia, and HR limits were changed to “crisis,” requiring nursing staff to view and act on the alarm each time it sounded. The limits for HR were HR low 45 bpm and HR high 130 bpm.
An overall 89% reduction in total mean weekly audible alarms was achieved on the pilot unit (t = 8.84; P < .0001) without requirement for additional resources or technology. Staff and patient satisfaction also improved. There were no adverse events related to missed cardiac monitoring events, and the incidence of code blues decreased by 50%.
Alarms with self-reset capabilities may result in an excess number of audible alarms and clinical alarm fatigue. By eliminating self-resetting alarms, the volume of audible alarms and associated clinical alarm fatigue can be significantly reduced without requiring additional resources or technology or compromising patient safety and lead to improvement in both staff and patient satisfaction.
Deborah A. Whalen, MSN, MBA, APRN, ANP-BC, FAHA Assistant Professor of Medicine, School of Medicine, Boston University, and Clinical Service Manager, Cardiology, Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts.
Patricia M. Covelle, MMHC, RN Director of Critical Care Nursing, Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts.
James C. Piepenbrink, BSBME Director of Clinical Engineering, Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts.
Karen L. Villanova, BSN, RN Nurse Manager, Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts.
Charlotte L. Cuneo, MSN, RN Clinical Instructor, Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts.
Eric H. Awtry, MD Associate Professor of Medicine, School of Medicine, Boston University, and Inpatient Clinical Director, Division of Cardiology, Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts.
The authors have no funding or conflicts of interest to disclose.
Correspondence Deborah A. Whalen, MSN, MBA, APRN, ANP-BC, FAHA, Boston Medical Center, One Medical Center Place, Collamore 8 Section of Cardiology, Boston, MA 02118 (firstname.lastname@example.org).