UB tool aims to make hospitals safer

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- Dr. Matthew Bolton is developing a computer-based tool that uses the same technology as MP3 audio files.

The goal is pretty simple.

“When critical alarms go off people will be able to hear them,” the assistant professor in the Engineering Department at UB said.

With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Bolton is working to combat a symptom of over-stimulation in hospitals; missing important sounds.

“You can have multiple sounds coming into the human ear at any given time and our ear can only encode a certain amount of information at any given frequency,” Bolton explained.

Essentially, the brain risks getting overloaded and canceling out certain sounds when too many are thrown its way.

Bolton has enlisted the help of Scott Eardley, a Simulation Education Specialist with a doctorate degree in nursing. Eardley, who’s spent years in hospitals as a nurse, said ‘alarm masking’ is becoming a real issue.

“As the electronics proliferate and become more common, the chances increase that you’re going to have that masking,” he said.

According to the Joint Commission, between 2010 and 2016 there are 260 alarm-related events, which could mean anything from incorrect settings, to policies not in place, or an alarm not being heard.

The events impacted 264 patients and caused 193 deaths.

“Within the confines of say an operation room, you’re going to have multiple alarms, from the monitors from the patient, from the ventilator, from the pumps. You could probably have maybe 13-14 different noises going at once,” said Eardley.

As a human factors engineer, Dr. Bolton works to make machines better, knowing humans operate them.

Understanding innate human limitations, he said, will make hospital technology safer.

“If the person can’t physically hear the alarm they’re not going to be able to respond to it. And so this work is mean to provide that check.”

The International Medical Alarm Standard is currently being revised. Dr. Bolton said the changes will appear subtle, but they could impact doctors and nurses abilities to get to emergencies.

One of the problems researchers with the International Medical Alarm Standard are looking into, is alarm masking.

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