(BOSTON) -- The death of a 60-year-old patient at UMass Memorial Medical Center raised the alarm on a problem plaguing hospitals nationwide: the many medical machines that beep for attention.
The man, whose name has not been released, died in August 2010 after alarms signaling possible heart and breathing problems went unanswered for nearly an hour, the Boston Globe reported. His death is the second blamed on so-called alarm fatigue at the Worcester, Mass., hospital in four years.
"Simply adding alarms doesn't make the system safer," said Dr. Richard Cook, a critical care physician and safety expert at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "In fact, it can make it less safe because there are so many false alarms that people end up not being able to figure out which ones are important."
Alarm fatigue, also dubbed the "cry wolf" phenomenon, is a growing problem in a health care system increasingly reliant on machines. A stroll down a typical hospital hallway offers a chorus of beeps and buzzers, most of which require no action by hospital staff.
"Each box, each device, each program is claiming the attention of the human operator. The result is people are confronted with many, many alarms, only a few of which are meaningful or important," Cook said. "The function of the human becomes to ignore alarms. And inevitably some get ignored that would have been important to pay attention to."
Cases such as the one at UMass often evoke a wave a finger-pointing. But Cook said nurses and doctors can't be blamed for missing alarms.
"The current approach is to immediately try to figure out who goofed," he said. "But it's a pervasive problem in the health care system and it's only getting worse."
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