Seven steps to better alarm management in healthcare

Healthcare workers are struggling with alarm management. The right organizational approach can help them work better and improve the patient experience. Here’s how.

April 24, 2023

In today's healthcare industry, technology has greatly improved how we manage patient care. One of the most significant advances is the integration of alarms into nurse call systems. These alarms are triggered by sensors and other medical equipment to alert staff to potential issues. However, as the number of alarms has increased, so has the problem of alarm fatigue. Staff are overwhelmed by non-stop alerts. In some cases, they may even begin to ignore ones that are usually false alarms or that are triggered by mistake. This not only puts a strain on the work environment but also puts patient care at risk.

Better alarm management in care departments is possible with the right approach and smarter alarm management technology. Using data analytics to determine which alarms are important and ensuring they reach the right person at the right time reduces stress and alarm fatigue and can boost nurse and clinician productivity. Implementing this system is a seven-step approach. 

1. Scan of Current Work Processes and Problem Definition

The first step is to identify the current problem with alarm fatigue by interviewing clinical experts and shadowing staff on wards. By doing so, we can determine the pain points and which alarms are relevant and which are not. Perhaps false alarms are most common from specific types of equipment or maybe there are certain points in the shift when multiple alarms go off at once. Observing how staff respond to alarms and how quickly can also provide valuable information. Very often clinicians are not aware of the problems within their environment because they have become so used to them.

2. What is the Business Case? Use data driven insights.

To get stakeholders on board, it's essential to develop a business case that outlines the potential benefits of better alarm management technology. Healthcare providers are driven by the Quadruple Aim: better patient experience; better experience for clinical staff; improved outcomes; and lower costs. Better alarm management can improve all four areas. It can ensure that patients get more one-to-one time with clinical staff who are responding to the right alarms and priorities, and ultimately free resources by helping to discharge patients more quickly. To create this business case, it is vital to collect data on how many alarms are being triggered, how often, and how they are resolved. This will also serve as a baseline to measure improvements after the project is completed.

3. Define the Targets

Using the data collected, we can design scenarios for how the new alarm chain should work. This will help us determine which alarms can be filtered out and estimate the effects on workloads without impacting patient safety. Some alarms are caused by situations that would resolve themselves without assistance from a nurse. For example, a patient might trigger a sensor when they turn over, but the alarm will stop once they finish moving. Introducing a delay into the system would filter out these alerts and ensure that neither patient nor staff are disturbed unnecessarily.

4. Determine Alarm Content and Responsibilities

When an alarm is sent, it's crucial to define what information should be included. Perhaps electrocardiogram (ECG) data is required or information about how much medication is left in the patient’s infusion pump. In ante-natal departments it is often useful for an alert to include a camera feed so the clinical staff can see the baby immediately. It is also necessary to define who should receive the alert in the first instance and what should happen if they do not respond within a certain amount of time. Perhaps the alert should then be escalated to a buddy nurse or sent to the entire staff of the ward. The right approach depends on how the department is organised and the severity of the alarm. A data sheet is produced for each alarm, which is presented to the department to ensure that it works as intended.

5. Implementation: introduction in wards 

The software is installed, and any necessary new handheld devices are supplied to clinical staff. The system is intuitive, and an hour of training is typically all that's needed. It's essential to address the culture of alarm fatigue and make staff aware that there will be fewer alarms, but the alarms that do go off should not be ignored. After training comes a testing phase, during which the system can be tweaked. We return for reviews after two weeks, two months and six months, to ensure everything is working as planned.

6. The Results

After testing the new processes, we can compare them to the benchmarks taken before the project began. Have we been able to reduce the cognitive load for nurses? Do they feel less overwhelmed by the number of alarms that go off and how frequently? Is the new system reducing pressure on resources? Not every alarm can be reduced, of course, but we should see improvements in alarm reduction, staff fatigue, and patient safety. 

7. Ongoing Monitoring

It's essential to monitor the system on an ongoing basis to ensure it continues to function as intended. By using dashboards, the department can see how the system is working and adjust it as needed. There will inevitably be a need for changes over time, too. Alarms might be applied to new situations, for example, or new devices might be rolled-out to the department. And our software continually grows in its capabilities through annual updates. Occasionally, significant new features will require training.

In conclusion, alarm fatigue is a real problem in the healthcare industry, and it puts both staff and patients at risk. By implementing a silent medical alarm system that uses data analytics, we can ensure that only the most important alarms are triggered and that they reach the right person in a timely fashion.

By following the seven steps outlined above, we can optimize the way alarms are managed in the healthcare department and improve patient care.

Learn more about how the Ascom Healthcare Platform and alarm management solutions can help you at our website, or contact us for more.


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