Background Reliance on physiological monitors to continuously “watch” patients and to alert the nurse when a serious rhythm problem occurs is standard practice on monitored units. Alarms are intended to alert clinicians to deviations from a predetermined “normal” status. However, alarm fatigue may occur when the sheer number of monitor alarms overwhelms clinicians, possibly leading to alarms being disabled, silenced, or ignored.

Purpose Excessive numbers of monitor alarms and fear that nurses have become desensitized to these alarms was the impetus for a unit-based quality improvement project.

Methods Small tests of change to improve alarm management were conducted on a medical progressive care unit. The types and frequency of monitor alarms in the unit were assessed. Nurses were trained to individualize patients’ alarm parameter limits and levels. Monitor software was modified to promote audibility of critical alarms.

Results Critical monitor alarms were reduced 43% from baseline data. The reduction of alarms could be attributed to adjustment of monitor alarm defaults, careful assessment and customization of monitor alarm parameter limits and levels, and implementation of an interdisciplinary monitor policy.

Discussion Although alarms are important and sometimes life-saving, they can compromise patients’ safety if ignored. This unit-based quality improvement initiative was beneficial as a starting point for revamping alarm management throughout the institution.

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