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“Alarm Fatigue” Contributed to Patient’s Death

Hospital staff members are increasingly more overburdened, and patients and their family members must remember to be proactive and act as their own best medical advocate.  An article published by the Boston Globe last year confirmed that federal investigators concluded that “alarm fatigue’’ suffered by nurses contributed to the death of a heart patient at Massachusetts General Hospital in January 2010.  “Alarm fatigue” is the desensitization to the sound of beeping monitors and alarms due to constantly sounding machines.

The federal investigators said that the nurses on duty the morning of the patient’s death did not recall hearing the beeping monitors or seeing scrolling tickertape messages that would have alerted them of the fact that the patient’s heart rate was decreasing and eventually stopped.  In addition, the investigators confirmed that the volume for a separate crisis alarm on the patient’s bedside monitor was turned off the night before “by an unknown person.”  During their investigation, federal investigators found additional problems, including video screens in which visitors could see patients being monitored in their rooms.

Although Massachusetts General has taken steps to correct the deficiencies, patient safety advocates are concerned about the number of recent deaths that have been reported due to alarm fatigue, or because monitors are accidentally turned off or purposely disabled by staff members who no longer want to hear the constantly beeping machines.  According to the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit medical device research and consulting organization, alarms on patient monitoring devices were “number two on its top 10 list of health technology hazards [in 2009].”

In light of the results of this investigation, as well as the fact that a recent report published in the Archives of Surgery in October 2010 revealing a "persisting high frequency of surgical 'never events,” (i.e. surgical errors that are entirely preventable and should never occur), patients and their families are reminded to be diligent and proactive with respect to their medical care.   Patients and their families should ask questions, expect informative and responsive answers, and consider themselves part of their own medical team.  Patients and their families should understand what functions monitors and other equipment serve, as well as what they should do in the case of an emergency.

Legal remedies are available to victims of medical negligence, such as alarm fatigue or surgical errors, typically in the form of a lawsuit for medical malpractice or wrongful death.  Contact the skilled Chicago medical malpractice attorneys at Steinberg, Goodman, & Kalish if you or a family member has been the victim of medical malpractice.

Steinberg, Goodman, & Kalish  ( is dedicated to protecting victims and their families.  We handle medical malpractice, product liability, personal injury, wrongful death, auto accidents, professional negligence, birth trauma, and railroad law matters. Contact us at (888) 325-7299.

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