Are Alerts and Alarms Contributing to Hospital Mistakes?

Hospitals are increasingly using electronic patient records and other technologies that can alert doctors, nurses and other staff to patient emergencies or other events. Doctors are bombarded with reminders on their smartphones, email popups to attend meetings and electronic patient records that warn of dangerous medication interactions or allergies.

The alerts are so frequent that hospital staff may not take them seriously. Hospital workers and researchers refer to this phenomenon as ‘alert fatigue’.

An article published in The Washington Post recently discussed why alert fatigue is dangerous for patients. According to the article, which used a study from Harvard Medical School, doctors ignore patient safety notifications between 49 to 96 percent of the time.

What does this mean for patients? The article describes how one doctor ignored an alert warning of a potentially lethal drug reaction. Even worse, the warning involved a child patient. Fortunately, the doctor and hospital staff caught the error in time and saved the patient’s life. Other patients might not be as lucky.

How Can Hospitals Prevent Alert Fatigue?

Some alerts may be more important than others. Hospitals might be able to filter through which events can trigger alerts. The hospital responsible the almost-lethal medication error we just described has created a filter that only sets off alarms during serious patient safety situations.

Solutions to prevent alert fatigue have triggered a debate among hospitals. For example, many argue that doctors and pharmacists should always be alerted to potentially harmful drug interactions (and they should). The debate has centered around what warrants a notification, and this is a task that hospitals will have to undertake soon.

The Tampa Bay medical malpractice attorneys at Shapiro Law Group can help patients and families who have been harmed my medical wrongdoing.


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