Christopher Bonafide, MD

Medical devices monitoring patients send off alerts when something is not quite right. Heart rate is off? Beep. Pulse low? Beep beep. Ventilator seems to be malfunctioning? Another alarm. IV medication bag almost empty - more beeps. Nurses hear them their sleep. For patients, they can be terrifying. But the thing is, the vast majority of these alarms are unnecessary.

"Ninety-nine percent of the alarms that we saw were not actionable, meaning that a true alarm, an alarm that you needed to run in the door and save a patient, that was like a needle in a haystack," said Chris Bonafide, a pediatrician and researcher at the The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The 99-percent figure applies to regular hospital units, but even in an intensive care setting, the vast majority of alarms do not mean a patient is in danger. For example, the patient is a baby kicking his legs. It's what babies do. So much so, in fact, the little sticker that holds the monitor's sensor in place comes off. "So the device on the wall thinks that his heart rate is going way out of whack, but actually it's just fine, it's a happy kicking baby with a loose lead," said Bonafide. He has been studying what happens when you get false alarm after false alarm—a phenomenon called "alarm fatigue." He says when he walks around on the hospital unit, he hears the beeping, but it fades into the background. Specifically, he has been tracking how nurses respond to an alarm when they have already received lots and lots of alarms during their shift, and Bonafide found a relationship between that number and response times.

This is not a new issue. Healthcare providers started talking about it in the 1980s when hospitals and patient monitoring became much more high-tech. At the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Bonafide says over 1,800 different devices are used in patient care, and most of them can send off alarms. And every time an alarm goes off, a nurse on the floor is alerted and has to make a decision.

Read the whole story and hear Chris Bonafide discuss his research on WHYY's Newsworks The Pulsehere.