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Patients Tormented by the Sound of Hospital Alarms

Think of a few sounds that would make you cringe, if you had to hear them over and over and over again. Nails on a chalkboard? Balloons popping? What about the constant noise of an alarm?

hospital

Every day in hospitals across the U.S., tens of thousands of alarms go off — beeping, buzzing and shrieking around patients. While the alarms are intended to alert medical staff when there’s a problem, the constant noise creates stress and unrest for patients trying to heal.

According to research from the ECRI Institute, alarms have ranked among the top 10 health technological hazards for the past decade. The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, even warned the public about alarm systems in hospitals in 2013, referring to hospital patients’ adverse effects to alarms as “a frequent and persistent problem.” According to the Commission, reports of 98 alarm-related events occurred between January 2009 and June 2012, resulting in 80 patient deaths, 13 instances of permanent loss of function, and five instances of unexpected additional care or extended hospital stay.

Associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Nursing, Barbara King, has interviewed patients regarding their experience with bed alarms. She told Kaiser Health News, “They’re loud. For some patients, it’s frightening. They don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s a source of irritation,” she said. “For some patients, they won’t move.”

Maria Cvach, an alarm expert and director of policy management and integration for Johns Hopkins Health System, and her team were able to reduce the average number of alarm sounds from patients’ cardiac monitors from 350 a day to about 40 a day, by customizing alarm settings and converting some of the noise alerts to visual alerts that appeared at nurses’ stations. But she said there is much more to be done.

In the U.S. it's estimated that 100 million people are exposed to unhealthy levels of noise pollution, typically from automobile and aircraft traffic (although everything from leaf blowers and lawnmowers to loud music can also contribute). Noise pollution may increase your risk of hearing loss, but it goes much further than that. Stress, sleep disturbances, diminished productivity, and even heart disease can also result.