How Alarm Fatigue Was Killing Me

I work in healthcare, and fortunately for the human race, not in a clinical setting. My job requires me to stay on top of trends in the healthcare industry from changing Medicare reimbursements to the latest stem cell research findings, so I rarely have the opportunity to see all trends I'm monitoring evolve from their beginning stages to wherever they go. However, a trend in healthcare that has gripped me for close to two years now is this disturbing event called alarm fatigue. Research has found that the number one hazard in healthcare technology is alarms--not orthopedic saws or defibrillators, not even radiation equipment, but alarms.

How could something intended to keep patients safe be so dangerous?

A recent Forbes article on the subject quotes a study that found, "...the average number of alarms in an ICU has increased from 6 in 1983 to more than 40 different alarms in 2011." What has resulted is a sea of healthcare workers now effectively trained to ignore alarms, because all they hear all day, everyday are alarms, alarms, alarms (up to 12,000 per day).

This has some frightening implications for all parties involved. Obviously, the worst outcome is a patient dying. The Joint Commission (the government's healthcare quality control police) reported in 2013 that 80 individuals had died as a result of alarm fatigue and another 13 were permanently disabled. On the seemingly less dramatic end of the scale, reports show healthcare workers exhibit signs of sleep deprivation, weakened immune systems, and anxiety as a result of alarm fatigue. These same sleep deprived, sick, and anxious individuals are then held to enormous patient volume workloads, never ending shifts, constantly changing protocols, and don't forget, saving lives.

All this information is, well, alarming. 

The first time I heard about alarm fatigue, the concept instantly resonated with me. It was 2013 and shortly after making my line-in-the-sand, yesterday-was-my-old-life, today-is-my-new-life decision to change everything. I realized the idea was so familiar and disturbing to me because I had suffered from alarm fatigue. Not in the literal sense like what healthcare workers are experiencing today, but certainly figuratively. My life was one giant mess of alarm after alarm after alarm. I had become so desensitized to all the screaming warning signals, no longer able to discern which one was the most urgent, that I no longer heard any of them.

It's a terrifying place to be, where your mind and body are exhausted from the effort of simply trying to just keep going. But in my experience, it seems to be in that place of relentless and futile effort that we hear the loudest alarm of all, the one that shocks us into action and submission all at the same time. The one that says, "Give it up! You're missing the point! It's not too late to start over!"

And then we do what we did the day before because we haven't learned another way yet, but we do it with a different perspective, one that acknowledges that there could be another way. Then another way comes and one alarm stops beeping, and then we learn something else and another alarm stops screeching, and another, and another, and another. Then silence. That is what is truly and beautifully deafening. 

When we work to stay mindful of our bodies, the most accurate measuring tool we have, we get to that place of alarm-less silence much more quickly and can stay in it for longer periods of time. I stay present by asking myself things like:
- How are you sleeping?
- What are you eating?
- Are you getting enough time alone?
- When was the last time you took 3 deep breaths?
- Is there anything bothering you right now?

When we allow ourselves the time to pause and listen to the responses, we can hear our bodies' needs. 

Today there are still alarms in my life. I'm human and I don't strive to be without them forever. But I use alarms now how they are intended to be used--a warning signal that something needs my attention, that there is work to be done.