Reducing alarm fatigue in the hospital

Noise increases patient anxiety


Researchers are exploring ways to make alarms and monitors less irritating and more informative.

ICU monitor, showing values for cardiac frequency, O2 saturation, arterial pressure, CO2ef, FRva and pulse. marcosmartinezromero/iStockphoto

“Hospitals today can be sonic hellscapes, which studies have shown regularly exceed levels set by the World Health Organization: droning IV pumps, ding-donging nurse call buttons, voices crackling on loudspeakers, ringing telephones, beeping elevators, buzzing ID scanners, clattering carts, coughing, screaming, vomiting,” according to a recent article in the New York Times.

And that’s not to mention all the alarms that blare regularly, day and night. “A single patient might trigger hundreds each day, challenging caregivers to figure out which machine is beeping, and what is wrong with the patient, if anything,” according to the article.

All this noise contributes to patient anxiety and delirium and to staff burnout too. Alarm fatigue is a serious problem, related to the high rate of false alarms, the lack of alarm standardization, and the number of medical devices that emit an alarm. Its effect is to make caregivers less responsive.

A group of researchers is developing new sounds that could replace current alarms. These new signals might mimic electronic dance music or the sounds of a heartbeat; they may combine audible alarms with visual cues such as interactive screens; they will certainly be quieter. Testing remains to be done around how quickly clinicians will be able to learn the sounds and how loud they need to be. The researchers say a new standard is likely to go into effect in 2020.


1. Rueb ES. To Reduce Hospital Noise, Researchers Create Alarms That Whistle and Sing. New York Times. July 9, 2019.

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