Selecting an Approach to Overhead Emergency Communications

October 26, 2015 | Healthcare Risk, Quality, & Safety Guidance

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The ability of staff to respond appropriately to emergency communications is a fundamental patient safety concern; if staff do not understand what the problem is, they will not be able to respond appropriately. Depending on the type of emergency, any failure could put patients, visitors, and/or staff at risk.

The substantial variation among codes used at healthcare facilities and the fact that healthcare workers will likely work at different facilities throughout their careers lead to the need for either uniformity among emergency codes or use of standardized formats for plain language. Many facilities also employ temporary staff; these staff members, who may work at a variety of facilities over a short time span, will have little time to become familiar with the different codes or systems at different facilities. Additionally, depending upon the nature of the emergency and the capabilities of the population served, patients and visitors may need to respond to some codes. At the very least, many will hear them and be aware that there is some kind of emergency.

Many healthcare facilities throughout the nation have frequently used traveling or temporary staff to combat understaffing, which has been a problem in U.S. healthcare for years (see the guidance articles Employing Temporary and Agency Staff and Understaffing).

With the frequent use of agency or traveling nurses and a high turnover rate, healthcare workers often have little time to acclimate to facility-specific features such as emergency alert systems. Temporary workers, who may work at several facilities in a week, are especially hard-pressed to remember several different sets of codes. In addition, physicians often hold privileges at several different facilities and could be at any one of them when an emergency arises.

Clinical healthcare workers are not the only hospital employees who respond to emergency codes. Many nonclinical staff—including housekeeping, maintenance, and security personnel—will also discover and be among the first to respond to emergency situations. These workers are often employed by outside staffing agencies and may frequently work in several facilities in a single week or even during a single day. Just as with clinical healthcare workers, a uniform communication format...

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