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Critical alarm systems in complex environments often mean the difference between life and death. The users rely heavily on the information and alarms of monitoring devices in order to take the right action at the right time. However, in high-stress situations the alarms are often ignored, yet they are the most needed. We believe design thinking can help us find the right point of intervention.

It starts with asking the right questions. Why do alarms have to exist? When are they needed? And at what range of intensity?

Over the years, the projects kept an increasing pace of scale and complexity. From car-driver alarms research with Toyota to the control room of ESA space missions. We are currently focussing on projects in healthcare. These projects are brought together in what we call the ‘Silent ICU’ project (ICU stands for Intensive Care Unit). The project contains a living lab at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, a vital partner of the Lab. Together with other stakeholders (see Figure underneath) we fight against the issues with alarms in intensive care.

Issues with alarms in intensive care

The use of alarm sounds to prevent patients from dying or being seriously harmed is an integral part of modern intensive care in hospitals. The alarms are fundamentally designed to be a crucial work tool for clinicians. Ironically, the excessive amount of all these alarms create a stressful sound environment. As a consequence, patients’ mental and physical health as well as clinicians’ well-being and work efficiency are threatened. Clinical staff members, and even patients, have been reported to turn off sound-producing equipment, for example. Therefore, there is an urgent need to tackle the alarms in the ICU.

In order to consider the function of the audible alarms in depth and their role in the daily practices of clinical staff, it is essential to consider the entire ecology of intensive care, the healthcare domain in general, and broader societal issues.

The aim is to improve the work conditions of ICU clinicians and the recovery process of patients. New standards for intensive care have to be set up which should be applicable for Erasmus MC as well as other Dutch and foreign hospitals.

The future ICU

The future ICU should be a safe, calm, and satisfying environment in which patients can peacefully recuperate. Besides, the clinicians’ workflow should be facilitated. To cover all aspects of the ‘sound’ problem and to achieve the envisioned goal, a series of studies in the ICU are needed.

Design interventions play an important role during these studies, as they are the building blocks of innovative solutions that will manifest the vision for the future ICU. This requires a human-centred but technology-driven approach. The approach involves those inside the ICU who are exposed to the sound environment, but also stakeholders outside the ICU, like manufacturers, policy makers and medical institutions. Therefore, it is essential to consider the entire ecology of intensive care, the healthcare domain in general, and broader societal issues.

Elif Özcan Vieira      | Form-Experience & Sound-Driven Design

dr. Elif Özcan Vieira | Form-Experience & Sound-Driven Design

We want our Lab to inspire everyone in our network. From students and researchers to hospitals, manufacturers, and policy makers. Show them that alarms can be beautiful if we ask the right questions and incorporate the right stakeholders in their design.