Hospital Alarm Systems May Be Improved By Adopting Lessons Learned By Aviation Industry

New research suggests the medical community could improve patient safety by prioritizing hospital alarm systems similar to how alerts are handled in aviation, helping patients with the highest need for immediate care receive treatments first during emergencies.

Hospital alarms play a critical role in patient management and monitoring, and researchers from Ohio State University say benefits may be reaped by adopting lessons learned by the aviation industry, helping doctors and medical providers address the most pressing health issues first.

In findings published this month in the journal Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology, researchers from The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences met with engineers with expertise in alarm design in health care, aviation, nuclear power generation, and military command and control domains.

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The researchers determined hospital alarms are overly complicated when compared to alarms used in aviation, which they found have similar safety objectives and challenges.

The number of false alarm notifications at hospitals was also identified as an area of concern. When multiple alarms happen, it becomes difficult for staff to make a decision on where to respond to first. Simplifying the systems help avoid alarms becoming overly burdensome and dangerous, and allow rapid and safer responses to patient issues, the researchers noted.

The researchers propose making a list of alarm priorities for medical staff, so they can answer patient care issues in a timely and proper fashion. They anticipate this would help significantly; with patient alarms which indicate a severe health threat getting help first. For instance, notifications that a battery died, a patient needs water, or a patient needs assistance to the bathroom could be sent to other clinical staff, while nurses could focus on patient health and more serious events.

The study also indicates hospital alarms should be designed to prioritize based on the level of concern, with levels ranging from one to four. Currently, hospital alarms are typically only divided into two levels. Advancing hospital alarms to levels 3 and 4 could have a big impact on quality of care, with highly reliable and intelligent systems that detect the most severe issues early for treatment, such as evidence of sepsis or if a patient’s respiratory system became compromised.

“Overall, we advocate for reconceptualizing alarms to be integrated systems for supporting the cognitive work of nurses on a unit, collaborations with code blue response teams and respiratory therapists, and communications with patients and other clinical staff,” the researchers concluded.

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