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Keeping Patients Safe: A Complete Review of Patient Alarms

By CME Corp Staff | February 6, 2024

Hospitals and long-term care facilities are entrusted with the care of people who cannot care for themselves for one reason or another. In a perfect world the ratio of caregivers to patients would be one-to-one. But the world is not perfect.

Caregivers care for multiple patients including some who should not reposition themselves without assistance. To help monitor all patients, even when attending a single patient, staff rely on patient alarms.

From bed alarms monitoring critical care patients in hospitals to door alarms for dementia patients in long term care facilities these safety alarms alert healthcare professionals when a patient has moved or is “on the move.” Early notification of patient movement gives staff the time to assist or redirect the patient, preventing further injury to a healing body, possible falls, or the unenviable task of explaining how someone became unaccounted for.

There are several types of alarms available to hospitals, nursing homes, behavioral health, or other long term care facilities. This article will review the features and benefits of these patient alarms. Also included, recommendations related to choosing the best alarm for the needs of patients, caregivers, and facility.

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 Article Contents

Types of Patient Alarms

When a patient feels good enough or strong enough to move around it is typically good news. However, for some, repositioning, moving about unassisted or unescorted could compromise their safety. To help caregivers monitor multiple patients simultaneously, a variety of pressure or motion activated patient alarms can be employed throughout a hospital or other healthcare facility to immediately notify staff when an at-risk patient has changed position.

Bed Alarms

Bed alarms are used in hospitals to monitor patients who need to remain still and in nursing homes as part of fall prevention strategies. The primary purpose of these alarms is to notify staff immediately when a person changes position. This alert gives caregivers the time to arrive at the bedside and offer assistance.

Whether wired or wireless, bed alarms operate by pressure sensors. The pressure pad or sensor mat placed under the bed sheet or mattress cover detects changes in pressure when a patient moves. Sensors trigger an audible alarm through the alarm unit when the weight on the pad shifts notifying attending caregivers of the movement.

Chair Alarms

Similar to bed alarms, chair alarms are designed to alert hospital staff when patients reposition themselves or attempt to rise from a chair without assistance. Chair alarms may also be used in nursing homes and other long term care facilities as part of a fall prevention strategy. The audible alert or vibration triggered by sensors detecting a change in pressure calls the attention of caregivers so they can reach the patient quickly and help.

Floor Alarm Mats

Thin, flat, and flexible floor alarm mats are placed on the floor in strategic locations where a person is likely to stand or walk. For example, at the bedside, in front of a chair, or near a doorway. Like bed alarms and chair alarms, floor alarm mats are pressure activated. The alert, either sound or light, may be local or connected to a larger monitoring system to notify caregivers working in other locations. Early intervention by healthcare staff can help prevent injury.

Motion Sensor Alarms

Commonly thought of as door alarms for the elderly or door alarms for dementia patients, motion sensor alarms are much more than door alarms. Whether infrared sensors or passive infrared (PIR) technology, motion sensor alarms play a key role in wandering prevention strategies implemented by healthcare facilities serving diverse medical conditions.

These patient alarms detect motion and will alert caregivers when a patient or resident begins to leave the safety of a bed or chair and move around. Strategically mounted sensor alarms can also help monitor restricted areas of a hospital and alert staff in the event of unexpected movement in a restricted area.

Pull String Alarms

Pull string alarms, also known as pull cord alarms, are used by patients to ask for help prior to moving. These patient alarms are not automatically activated but rely on patients to pull a cord when they want to communicate the need for assistance – think of the little bell from back in the day. Like sensor patient alarms, pull string alarms alert healthcare staff that a patient needs help.

It is important to note that while alarm systems can be very effective in alerting healthcare professionals when a patient is changing position,

not all alarms may be suitable for all patients.

Some patients may feel restrained by patient alarms despite the absence of physical restraints. Evaluation of a patient’s response to alarms and acknowledging feelings of restriction is critical.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) classify any position change alarm (ie: bed alarm or chair alarm) that makes an audible noise near a patient as a restraint. As such these alarms should be used only when medically necessary and the need for the alarm continually reevaluated.

Patient alarms are themselves just one component of fall or wandering prevention strategies implemented by healthcare facilities to ensure the safety of at-risk patients.


Key Features and Benefits of Patient Alarms

After determining which type of patient alarm is best suited to the hospital or other nursing facility, carefully evaluating features of the distinct type of patient alarm is a necessary step to ensuring patient safety and maximizing caregiver response.

Here are some patient alarm features to consider. It is important to note that this list is representative and not all features may be available for all alarm types.

CME has established relationships with industry leaders in patient alarms and can help source alarms with the features your facility needs.

Adjustable Sensitivity

Adjustable sensitivity settings allow caregivers to tailor the alarm to the needs of the patient and caregiver.

Audible and Visual Alerts

Patient alarms featuring both audible and visual alerts of the benefit of customizing the alarm to the healthcare environment. In some environments an audible sound could inhibit patients from moving at all or be triggering or disruptive to other patients. Adjusting the alert for day versus night is another benefit.

Integration with Nurse Call Systems and EHRs

Ask the manufacturer about integration options to further improve the response time and coordination of caregivers as well as information sharing.

Reset Mechanism

Look for reset features that are quick and easy to ensure the alarm is always operational.

Battery Backup

Battery backups are simply a smart idea. Check with facility policy and/or regulatory bodies to determine if a battery back-up is required.

Tamper Resistant Design

Patients and long-term care residents can be wily, especially if they want to be more independent than is safe for them. Seek out patient alarm systems that are designed to discourage and prevent disabling or manipulating the alarms.

Remote Monitoring

For healthcare facilities with central monitoring locations, look for remote monitoring features.

Wireless Connectivity

Wireless technology offers the benefit of added flexibility in the placement of alarms. Ask the manufacturer about this feature.

Customizable Notifications

Some patient alarm systems allow caregivers to customize alerts in their preferred format.

Choosing the Right Patient Alarm for Your Needs

Choosing the right patient alarms is important to fall and wandering prevention policies designed to ensure the safety of patients at risk for wandering or falls. While there is no “one size fits all” answer for how to choose the right alarm there are some general recommendations.

  1. Conduct a thorough assessment of the needs of the expected patient population or existing patients. Consider things like the level of mobility and cognitive function. These will offer a view of fall risk.
  2. Consulting with the caregivers who assist patients daily before finalizing patient alarm purchases is a valuable best practice. Staff can offer recommendations about the features that contribute the most to efficiency of care and share feedback from patients about the alarms.
  3. Choosing patient alarms that comply with applicable industry standards and guidelines such as those set by ASTM, ISO and regulatory bodies can add a layer of assurance that the alarms meet safety and performance standards.
  4. Consider the full cost of ownership in addition to the purchase price. The full cost of ownership includes the cost of annual maintenance contracts to extend the service life of the alarms, disposition costs for alarms at end of life, and the indirect cost of the time required for staff training. A best practice is to look for generous manufacturer’s warranties.

CME Corp. Can Help Source Patient Alarms

In addition to helping source the right patient alarms for your needs and budget, CME Corp. is the only medical equipment distributor to offer logistics, direct-to-site, and biomedical services.

Our Logistics and Direct-To-Site service teams can receive, inspect, assemble (as needed), deliver, and asset tag your patient alarms when it is convenient for you.

Inspecting and testing new equipment can drain the resources of a healthcare facility’s biomed team and delay putting new alarms into service. For over 35 years Biomedical services have been at the heart of CME. With this expert experience we are ready to support your biomed team to ensure your medical equipment is ready for service quickly.

Our BMETs can also work with your facility to establish equipment maintenance and repair plans focused on ensuring the reliability of your patient alarms and compliance with applicable regulations.

Click CHAT to begin a conversation about patient alarms with one of our medical equipment experts.

FAQs About Patient Alarms

Are alarms effective in fall prevention?

Used correctly, bed, chair, and floor mat alarms can be effective in helping to prevent falls by alerting caregivers when a patient is attempting to move around.

How is a bed alarm considered a restraint?

Bed alarms can be considered a restraint if a patient refrains from standing or repositioning themselves out of fear of triggering an alarm.

Are bed alarms banned?

While not banned, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) classify any position change alarm that makes an audible noise near a patient as a restraint. As such these alarms should be used only when medically necessary and the need continuously reevaluated.

About CME: With two corporate offices and 35+ service centers, CME Corp is the nation’s only equipment focused medical equipment distributer. We are the premier source for more than 2 million healthcare equipment products, from more than 2,000 manufacturers.

Our Turnkey logistics and biomedical services allow us to help healthcare facilities nationwide reduce the cost of the equipment they purchase, make their equipment selection, and schedule delivery, installation, and maintenance without impacting patient care. From medical equipment purchases to renovations and new facility construction CME Corp is your partner for seamless capital medical equipment purchases, delivered on time and in budget.

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