Original Research

Nurse Responses to Physiologic Monitor Alarms on a General Pediatric Unit


BACKGROUND: Hospitalized children generate up to 152 alarms per patient per day outside of the intensive care unit. In that setting, as few as 1% of alarms are clinically important. How nurses make decisions about responding to alarms, given an alarm’s low specificity for detecting clinical deterioration, remains unclear.
OBJECTIVE: Our objective was to describe how bedside nurses think about and act upon monitor alarms for hospitalized children. This was a qualitative study that involved the direct observation of nurses working on a general pediatric unit at a large children’s hospital.
MEASUREMENTS: We used a structured tool that included predetermined categories to assess nurse responses to monitor alarms. Data on alarm frequency and type were pulled from bedside monitors.
RESULTS: We conducted 61.3 patient-hours of observation with nine nurses, in which we documented 207 nurse responses to patient alarms. For 67% of alarms heard outside of the room, the nurse decided not to respond without further assessment. Nurses most commonly cited reassuring clinical context (eg, medical team in room), as the rationale for alarm nonresponse. The nurse deemed clinical intervention necessary in only 14 (7%) of the observed responses.
CONCLUSION: Nurses rely on clinical and contextual details to determine how to respond to alarms. Few of the alarm responses in our study resulted in a clinical intervention. These findings suggest that multiple system-level and educational interventions may be necessary to improve the efficacy and safety of continuous monitoring.

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