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Can you guess what the top technology health hazard is this year? The ECRI Institute of Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, has evaluated the most hazardous technology to patients and produced a list of ten hazards topped by alarms on monitors devised to protect patients. According to ECRI, the alarms found on cardiac monitors, infusion pumps and ventilators are the worst culprits. ECRI Institute, according to its website, is “an independent, non-profit organization that researches the best approaches to improving the safety, quality, and cost-effectiveness of patient care.” And ECRI has just published their report on top ten health technology hazards for 2012.

In February 2011, The Boston Globe (Liz Kowalczyk) published a series of articles on technology hazards in hospitals, such as beeping sensors or monitors “which can numb or distract hospital staff” with unfortunate results. Between 2005 and 2010, more than 200 deaths of hospital patients throughout the United States were attributed to problems with alarms on patient monitors that track heart function, breathing, and other vital signs. Sadly, the problem isn’t always a faulty or broken device, it’s how hospital staff, doctors, nurses, and other caregivers, react to the device—or don’t. In the healthcare industry, it’s called “alarm fatigue” when medical personnel don’t react with appropriate urgency to an alarm that signifies a critical situation with a patient. Sometimes they don’t hear the alarm—sometimes they just don’t react quickly enough.

While alarm monitors were devised to help save lives by alerting doctors and nurses to the fact that a patient is or soon could be in trouble, the increased use of “beeping monitors, with their numerous beeps and false alarms can become [as] meaningless” as “white noise” or background music as nurses and other medical personnel become desensitized — sometimes leaving patients in trouble without anyone responding to help fix the situation. At Massachusetts General Hospital, 10 nurses on duty one morning could not recall hearing the beeps, which sounded at the central nurses’ station, or seeing scrolling messages on three hallway signs that would have warned them that a particular patient’s heart rate dropped during a 20-minute time span and finally stopped. Alarm monitors were designed to prevent such tragedies. There’s more bad news: ECRI believes the resulting deaths caused by inappropriate reaction to alarm monitors are under-reported.

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