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Relax — And Listen to the Melodic Medical Alarms of the Future

As all clinicians and caregivers know, a patient who’s hooked up to a few machines can trigger dozens of alarms a day. These sounds, layered with coughing, vomiting, loud speakers, telephones, elevators and more, can turn hospitals into a sonic torture chamber.

The frequency of alarms in hospitals can make them hard to distinguish from one another, which in turn can lead to a common condition called alarm fatigue. It occurs when clinicians hear alarms so often they become desensitized and don’t respond to them. According to a 2012 study in Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology, 556 patients in the U.S. died between 2005 and 2008 because someone mismanaged a device alarm.

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These worrisome facts are driving the movement to create more appealing hospital sounds, though it’s an uphill battle to convince the old guards of healthcare that alarms don’t need to be so grating, The New York Times reports. A team of specialists, led by Dr. Judy Edworthy, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Plymouth in Britain, is working to incorporate the needs of patients and clinicians into a new set of medical device sounds reminiscent of soft techno music.

The team hopes to revise the international standard for medical device sounds early next year. The current standard stipulates tones for six critical functions: cardiovascular, drug administration, ventilation, oxygen, temperature and artificial perfusion.

For each, the group has created “auditory icons,” as The Times called it, or sounds that mimic the actions they represent. (Think “thump-thump” for a heartbeat and rattling pills for drug infusion.) The outlet reports researchers are in the process of testing how effective each sound is — determined by how quickly clinicians can to learn to recognize and respond to the sounds. Dr. Edworthy said she believes the sounds will become standard practice in years to come.

An iteration of the icons approach is CareTunes, created by Dr. Elif Ozcan, who runs the Netherlands’ Critical Alarms Lab. CareTunes translates bodily functions into different instruments — drums for the heartbeat, guitar for oxygen saturation and piano for blood pressure. 

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When the patient is stable, the song is harmonious, but when the condition worsens, it sounds out of tune in order to grab a clinician’s attention. The melody wouldn’t replace a code blue, but this strategy would ideally be more effective at notifying caregivers early on when a patient’s going downhill.

The hope is that creating a more pleasurable sound experience will benefit patients, especially those in the ICU who may experience delirium, and help healthcare professionals who battle burnout every day.

Do you think this new sonic system would improve your quality of care? Sound off in the comments below…

Monitor Alarm Fatigue: An Integrative Review, Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology.

Last updated on 10/8/19.

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