Bed Alarms Fail to Adequately Protect Older Hospital Patients From Fall Injuries

Hospital patients in general, and older, more infirm patients in particular, face a serious risk of falling and suffering additional injuries when attempting to get out of bed. Patients may be dizzy or have difficulty keeping their balance because of medication they are taking or just because of weakness. In addition to providing treatment for patients’ existing medical needs, hospitals have a duty to try to protect patients against further harm by providing a safe environment. A recent study, however, indicates that hospital bed alarms, one widely used safety measure, may not adequately be doing the job.

The purpose of a bed alarm is to notify medical staff on duty when a patient is trying to get out of bed when they shouldn’t be doing so, especially not unassisted. Such patients may be trying to reach restroom facilities, to access personal belongings, or to simply stretch their legs. In some instances, patients may be confused. The alarms are placed underneath patients in hospital beds and come with an average price tag of $400.

Falls are the leading cause of injury and death for all those over the age of 65 in the U.S.—not confined to those currently in a hospital. Over a million older people who have suffered fall injuries are brought to hospital emergency rooms every six months. Hospitals know that if they fail to protect inpatients from fall injuries, they face the likely prospect of personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuits for unreasonably ignoring a highly foreseeable problem.

When the records of almost 28,000 patients over a year and a half period was concluded, it showed that the presence of hospital bed alarms did not result in patients experiencing fewer falls. The problem did not appear to be with the adequacy of the training of medical staff members as to how to respond to the alarms, nor with any failure of the hospitals themselves to publicize the presence of the alarms.

The alarms themselves apparently have a tendency to go off falsely, when no patient is trying to get up. Some alarms may be activated when the patient is only shifting their body in bed or when the device is jostled. Others may be defective or require maintenance over time. This results in nurses and aides getting tired of frequently responding to false alarms and becoming either slow in their response, or sometimes just ignoring an alarm, assuming that it is false.

With a patient facing an imminent fall, of course, even a slow response may be the equivalent of no response at all, resulting in the hospital staff member reaching the patient’s room only after they are already lying on the floor, perhaps seriously injured.

The solution researchers proposed may be more labor intensive but it can actually result in fewer injuries. It depends on both educating patients and their families about fall risks from attempting to exit a hospital bed unassisted and encouraging and training hospital staff to more closely monitor patients at the most risk for falls.

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