According to the Boston Globe, between 2005 and 2010, more than 200 hospital patients died nationally from an improper response to “patient monitors.” Patient monitors are those machines that keep track of heart function, respiratory rate and other vital signs. Typically, nurses are responsible for watching monitors.
“Alarm fatigue,” a phenomenon where nurses become desensitized to frequent monitor beeping and constant false alarms, may contribute to instances of nursing negligence. A study at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore revealed 942 critical alarms on one floor, in one day. “That’s one alarm every 91 seconds,” said New York hospital negligence lawyer Michael A. Bottar, Esq., of Bottar Law, PLLC, a Syracuse based law firm representing patients injured due to hospital mistakes and errors.
“The alarms become background noise,” Bottar said. In one case, a patient who was wheeled into an intensive care unit and connected to a cardiac heart monitor. The leads slipped off and the machine sounded an alarm, but nursing staff did not respond. The patient stopped breathing and died without anyone noticing. At a different hospital, a patient’s heart monitor displayed a flat line for more than two hours because the battery was low. Even though they were checking on the patient, the nurses did not change the battery. The patient suffered a heart attack without anyone knowing, and died.
Nurses work in a loud, busy and often over-stimulating environment. As there are only so many nurses to care for the patient population, when machines are simultaneously emitting a “low-priority alarm (e.g., a low battery) and a “high-priority alarm” (e.g., a cardiac arrest), the high-priority alarms receive greater attention. The low-priority alarms get attention when there is time. But low-priority alarms, such as those indicating low battery power, need attention too. Bottar added, “there is no way to monitor for a heart attack, or low blood sugar, or low oxygen saturation, if the monitor is off.”