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What is “Alarm Fatigue” and is it Risky?

August 7, 2020

Nurses have a tough job. They wear many hats and answer to a host of people, such as doctors, administrators, nurse supervisors, patients, and concerned families and loved ones. Nurses also have numerous duties beyond the basic care of their patients. They must review patient conditions and treatment plans with doctors, administer medicine, coordinate tests, schedule therapies, monitor patient vital signs, and hold the hands of patients and their families, serving as a source of knowledge and strength. Obviously, the work of a nurse is vital in the treatment and care of patients. They’re lifesavers.

But these supermen and superwomen are only mortal. They get aches and pains. They get irritable. And they get stressed. One cause of that stress is alarm fatigue.

What is “Alarm Fatigue”?

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses defines alarm fatigue as “a sensory overload that occurs when clinicians are exposed to an excessive number of alarms, which can result in desensitization to alarm sounds and an increased rate of missed alarms.”

Overwhelmed nurses who ignore or delay in reacting to alarms can cause patient injury and death. The incessant beeping of medication pumps, IV drips, monitors, ventilators, vital sign machines, and feeding tubes go with the territory of being a nurse. It’s especially rough in the intensive care unit. In the last three decades, the number of medical devices that have alarms has grown from less than a dozen to around 40, reports The Washington Post.

Jumping to react to an alarm in a patient’s room can be exhausting. There’s a surge of adrenaline that hits a nurse each time he or she hears that beep or bell, knowing that they must swing into action in what could be a life or death situation. When that alarm is false, there’s a let down and relief. This causes cycles of stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

False Alarm!

Studies show that 72% to 99% of all patient monitoring alarms are false. This causes alarm fatigue. As a result, these high tech machines that are designed to alert nurses to trouble may sometimes be ignored. When a nurse assumes that an alarm is false, it places patients in danger and can lead to medical mistakes.

With almost all of these alarms proving to be false, nurses frequently have been found to do the following:

  • Reduce the volume of audible patient alarm signals;
  • Change alarm settings to outside safe and appropriate limits for the patient;
  • Ignore alarm signals; and even
  • Deactivate

These actions have resulted in added trauma, missed diagnoses, false and inaccurate readings, falls, poor quality and lack of care and treatment, and deaths of patients.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found more than 560 alarm-related deaths in the U.S. between 2005 and 2008. And from January 2009 to June 2012, U.S. hospitals saw 80 deaths and 13 severe injuries linked to alarms. Alarm fatigue is a real threat to quality patient care.

What If a Loved One is Harmed by Alarm Fatigue?

While hospitals and nurse associations are finding ways to reduce false alarms, alarm fatigue is still a serious concern in hospitals around the country and here in Michigan.

Failing to respond to a patient alarm is a clear breach of duty on the part of hospital staff. As a result, a patient or his or her family may have a claim for negligence and medical malpractice against the hospital, nurses, and other staff.

To recover on a claim of medical malpractice, an injured patient must show that the physician, nurse, or hospital acted negligently in providing care, and that this negligence caused his or her injury. These four legal elements must be proven:

  • a professional duty owed to the patient (to respond quickly to an alarm);
  • a breach of that duty (failing to respond or delaying response to the patient’s alarm);
  • injury caused by the breach (cardiac arrest, coma, developing other illness, etc.); and
  • resulting damages (the cost of additional care, extended hospitalization, lost wages, etc.).


If you or a loved one has suffered harm due to nurses or other hospital staff ignoring an alarm or not urgently responding to a patient alarm, you should speak with an alarm fatigue attorney at Buchanan Firm.

For a free consultation with an experienced Grand Rapids personal injury attorney, contact Buchanan Firm. We can discuss your situation if you believe you’ve been serious injured as the result of alarm fatigue.

Our firm proudly serves people all across Michigan, including major cities like Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Detroit, Lansing, Holland, St. Joe, and Ann Arbor, and rural towns such as Lowell, Ada, Fremont, Newaygo, Grand Haven, Rockford, and Cedar Springs. We will meet you after-hours, at home or in the hospital to accommodate you.