8 Characteristics of a “Good Alarm”

When your institution and your Alarm Management Steering Group first confronts alarm management it is important for your team to agree on some basic principles. Namely, what makes a “good alarm”?

What Kind of Alarms Do We Have?

Looking back at the history of monitoring devices, more and more devices are being added to patients. It is easy for device manufacturers and interoperability vendors to include more alarms with more devices. But, just because there is an alarm feature does not mean all alarms should be enabled for all patients in every unit. This leaves hospitals with a substantial number of alarms to configure and manage.

It is ultimately up to your team to decide which alarms and alarming systems should be active and are important for the care of your patients. The number and type of alarms you have enabled is dependent on your institutions risk tolerance, unit type and patient mix.

Defining a Good Alarm – 8 Characteristics

  1. Relevance: the event requires an action
    • When evaluating an alarm, the first question your Alarm Steering Committee should ask is: “Does this event require a response from the staff?”
    • If the answer is no, that alarm is probably not relevant for your patient population and unit.

Going beyond that initial test, characteristics of a good alarm include (adapted from EEMUA):

  1. Uniqueness: the alarm does not duplicate another alarm
  2. Timeliness: a response is needed in a short amount of time or a response could occur before it is too late for the appropriate action
  3. Prioritization: the level of importance or urgency that your staff should address the problem
  4. Understandable: a message that is clear and easy to understand by any clinician
  5. Diagnostic: is it clear why the alarm went off in the first place?
  6. Advisory: what is the action you need to take to address the alarm?
  7. Focus: drawing attention the most important issues

In an ideal world, hospitals would answer these 8 questions for every type of alarm in a unit. Practically, Alarm Steering Committees can uses these characteristics as a starting point for addressing the most frequent and highest criticality alarms.

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