Last week, most of Southern Indiana was preoccupied with March Madness and didn’t notice that the National Weather Service had proclaimed it Indiana’s Severe Weather Preparedness Week. You may have heard sirens at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday signaling the week’s highlight — a statewide tornado drill.
Since we are inundated with digital devices, people are constantly being bombarded by alarms. With our smart phones, we even carry them around with us. They alert, remind, warn and protect us. They also can be annoying, confusing and distracting. For many people, an alarm is the first thing they hear in the morning and the last thing they check at night.
British psychologist Meredith Edworthy, from the University of Plymouth, studied the use of medical monitoring equipment and found that the overuse of devices with auditory alarms can be counterproductive and even dangerous. In 2010, a cardiac patient died at Massachusetts General Hospital after one alarm had been turned off and another had been beeping for more than 20 minutes without being noticed. According to the Food and Drug Administration, from 2005 to 2010 there were 216 reported deaths directly related to medical alarms.
Psychologists call the failure to notice alarms “alarm fatigue.” In intensive-care units there can be several hundred alarms per patient per day. One study found that, on the average, a warning alarm went off in ICUs every minute and a half.
Other studies have shown that more than 85 percent of these are false alarms, in which the patient is not in any real danger. In many cases, the sounds soon blend in as background noise. Besides alarm fatigue, other frequently cited problems include: staff members forgetting to turn on devices or using the wrong settings; patients and staff turning down the volume or disabling alarms; and alarm failure due to dead batteries.