A description of nurses' decision-making in managing electrocardiographic monitor alarms

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Aims and objectives.

To describe the cues and factors that nurses use in their decision-making when responding to clinical alarms.


Alarms are designed to be very sensitive, and as a result, they are not very specific. Lack of adherence to the practice standards for electrocardiographic monitoring in hospital settings has been observed, resulting in overuse of the electrocardiographic monitoring. Monitoring without consideration of clinical indicators uses scarce healthcare resources and may even produce untoward circumstances because of alarm fatigue. With so many false alarms, alarm fatigue represents a symptom of a larger problem. It cannot be fixed until all of the factors that contribute to its existence have been examined.


This was a qualitative descriptive study.


This study was conducted at an academic medical centre located in the Northeast United States. Eight participants were enrolled using purposive sampling. Nurses were observed for two three-hour periods. Following each observation, the nurse was interviewed using the critical decision method to describe the cognitive processes related to the alarm activities. Qualitative data from the conducted interviews were analysed via an a priori framework founded in the critical decision method.


This study reveals information, experience, guidance and decision-making as the four prominent categories contributing to nurses' decision-making in relation to alarm management. Managing technology was a category not identified a priori that emerged in the data analysis.


Nurses revealed a breadth of information needed to adequately identify and interpret monitor alarms, and how they used that information to put the alarms into the particular context of an individual patient's situations.

Relevance to clinical practice.

Understanding the cues and factors nurses use when responding to cardiac alarms will guide the development of learning experiences and inform policies to guide practice.

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