New alarm system challenges auditory standards

Physicians can have difficulty distinguishing the multitude of alarms going off at any one time. Repeated exposures can also lead to critical errors or delays. In order to address such problems, researchers developed a new alarm system, explained in Human Factors, to deter repeat exposure and improve patient outcomes.

Lead by Judy Edworthy, director of the Cognition Institute at Plymouth University, a team of ergonomic researchers enrolled 300 participants in two studies to compare four prototype alarms. The alarms included word rhythms and auditory icons, and were compared on measures of recognition and localization with current alarm standards.

"It has been well known for quite a while that the alarms currently associated with the standard are difficult to learn and remember and need updating,” said Edworthy. “According to auditory research, sounds that have better links to their meanings, as well as those that are more acoustically variable, should be easier to learn, neither of which is true of the current set of alarms."

The first study showed participants were able to recognize each of the four prototype alarm sets more efficiently than current standards, with auditory icons being the most recognizable. The second study showed participants could localize three of the four prototypes more quickly and accurately with a large number of harmonics.