Quiet, Please! Hospital Noise Harms Patients and Staff

Hospital Noise

Telephones; hallway conversations; announcements; heavy rolling equipment and carts; waking patients up for meals, medications, and checks for vital signs; intercoms; pagers; televisions; and medical monitoring equipment may make it impossible for patients to rest in a hospital.

Johns Hopkins University acoustical engineers have found that hospital noise levels have grown steadily over the past five decades, disturbing patients and staff members, raising the risk of medical errors, and hindering efforts to modernize hospitals with speech-recognition systems. Some studies even show that excessive noise can slow healing and contribute to stress and “burnout” among hospital workers.

During a two-year research project, acoustics experts learned that noise is among the top complaints of patients and hospital staff members, but little is being done to address the problem.

The researchers presented their conclusions at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Minneapolis.

Since 1960, average daytime hospital sound levels have risen from 57 to 72 decibels (dB); nighttime levels have jumped from 42 to 60 dB. The World Health Organization’s 1995 guidelines suggest that sound levels in patients’ rooms should not exceed 35 dB.

Much hospital noise falls in the human speech frequency range, making oral communication more difficult. This can force doctors and nurses to speak even more loudly to be heard.

Sound congestion can lead to a misunderstanding of spoken orders for tests and medications. Many hospitals are moving to more automated systems, but amid the cacophony of competing sounds, voice recognition software does not work well.
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Noise levels often remain high at all hours, partly because of ventilation systems and alarm-laden electronic devices.

The researchers obtained modest noise reductions by making two changes. In the pediatric intensive care unit, personnel were given small hands-free personal communicators, worn on a lanyard. The communicators operate like cell phones. This system cut the frequency of overhead pages, and staff members were so pleased that the hospital purchased the system for that unit.

Acoustical ceiling tiles, which can absorb sound, might be absent from patient areas because they can provide a hiding place for infectious organisms. The researchers wrapped fiberglass insulation inside an antibacterial fabric, then attached these sound-absorbers to the ceiling and walls of a cancer unit.

Noise raises blood pressure, increases stomach acid, and boosts stress and anxiety. A well-rested person’s immune system is stronger than a sleep-deprived person’s.