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Learning medical alarms whilst performing other tasks

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Two studies are reported which first observe, and then attempt to replicate, the cognitive demands of intensive care unit (ICU) activity whilst concurrently learning audible alarms. The first study, an observational study in an ICU ward, showed that the alarms are very frequent and co-occur with some activities more than others. The three most frequently observed activities observed in the ICU were drugs (calculation, preparation and administration), patient observation and talking. The cognitive demands of these activities were simulated in a second, laboratory-based experiment in which alarms were learned. The results showed that performance in the alarm task generally improved as participants were exposed to more repetitions of those alarms, but that performance decrements were observed in the secondary tasks, particularly when there were two or three of them. Some confusions between the alarms persisted to the end of the study despite prolonged exposure to the alarms, confusions which were likely caused by both acoustic and verbal labelling similarities.

Practitioner Summary: The cognitive demands of working in an ICU were observed and simulated whilst alarms were learned. Alarms should generally avoid sharing similar rhythmic (and other) characteristics. The simulation task described here could be used for testing alarm learning without requiring a clinical environment.
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Keywords: alarms; learning; task sharing

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, Drake Circus Plymouth, PL4 8AA, UK 2: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK

Publication date: September 1, 2013

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