Walk past a hospital nursing station, and the cacophony of beeping, buzzing, and whirring alarms will stop you in your tracks. All you can hear is the din of heart monitors, ventilators, IV lines, and up to 1,800 other medical devices vying for your attention.
Work in a hospital nursing station, though, and you’ll become immune to the noise. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that medical devices generated almost two dozen alarms per hour. They also found that 99 percent of the ward patients’ alarms were false alarms. Not surprisingly, when there was an uptick in false alarms, response times also increased.
This is attributable to a phenomenon known as “alarm fatigue,” wherein the sheer number of false or nuisance alarms cause sensory overload and, ultimately, desensitization. Understandably, alarm fatigue can negatively impact patient safety.
Contributing to alarm fatigue among nurses is the overlay of relentless dinging of call buttons from patients who need assistance. In the paper, “Is Nurse Call Still Necessary?”, Gartner analyst Barry Runyon questioned the role of nurse call. He postulated that old-school nurse call buttons don’t align with today’s healthcare delivery models and higher standards relating to patient experience. Indeed, disruptive technology – such as app-based interactive digital systems – has the potential to make traditional nurse call systems redundant.
Today’s real-time notification technologies encompass elements of interactive patient care, collaboration and communication among staff, alarms, and nurse call. Few would argue that each of these avenues is part of the roadmap for the future of healthcare delivery.
Nevertheless, the reliable functionality of nurse call systems can literally mean the difference between life and death. For example, the typical 37-pin port nurse call system becomes damaged or is rendered useless when beds are moved without first disconnecting nurse call system cables. Hospitals that don’t want nurse call system casualties – either patients or broken bed cables – often install the Blackjack, a magnetic breakaway nurse call cable that prevents wall and port damage.
Reliability is why most hospitals require that their systems conform to UL 1069 guidelines. Underwriters Laboratories (the “UL” in UL 1069) tests equipment against the “Standard for Hospital Signaling and Nurse Call Equipment.”
Both wired and wireless nurse call systems can be approved under UL 1069, but compliance requirements make it difficult for disruptive technologies to stake a claim in the nurse call system space. Gartner’s Runyon opines that, as a result, vendors will offer nurse call functionality without labeling it as such.
In thinking about nurse call through the lens of technological advances, it seems wise to set aside “either/or” in favor of “both/and.” New medical devices with alerts and alarms should and will be developed, and technologies will evolve that enable robust patient monitoring while lowering the incidence of false alarms.
Similarly, interactive patient-nurse systems – such as those offered by software vendors and delivered via mobile devices – will empower patients to communicate in non-emergency situations. These systems should supplement – rather than replace – the more traditional fail-safe emergency nurse call system.