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New research could help identify cases of auditory masking, P.1

Health care professionals rely on a great deal of specialized equipment to do their jobs. This equipment needs to not only be in working order for providers to do their jobs correctly, but providers must also know how to properly use the equipment. One of the tools health care professionals routinely use in a variety of care environments is medical alarms, or devices equipped with medical alarms.

Medical alarms serve a couple important purposes in health care, including: to let providers know that the device is still working, to alert providers when a patient is need of immediate attention, and sometimes to indicate that something needs adjustment.  Because of the important function they serve, it is critical for providers to be able to distinguish between different types of medical alarms. This isn’t always easy, though, for a couple reasons. 

For one thing, in some health care settings, multiple medical devices are used and the sheer bombardment of noises coming from medical devices can cause sensory overload and desensitization to alarms and missed alarms. Health care professionals sometimes use alarm fatigue as a defense to liability. If it can be proven that the provider did not simply ignore the device, but simply couldn’t discern it because of alarm fatigue, he or she may be able to minimize liability. That’s the idea, anyway.

Another problem is auditory masking, which goes to the functionality of the device itself. Auditory masking occurs when different types of alarms cancel each other out so that it is impossible to discern which alarm is sounding. With auditory masking, it isn’t a matter of missing an alarm due to personal fatigue, but of the impossibility of identifying an alarm.

We’ll look further at this issue in our next post, and recent research that could allow for better identification of when auditory masking does and does not occur, as well as how this could impact medical malpractice litigation.

Source: Network World, “When medical alarm standards fail patients and health professionals,” Andrew Boyd, Oct. 10, 2016. 

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