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How loudness affects the hospital environment

As technology and devices become more prominent, the bed rest required for a full patient recovery is being compromised by a rapidly emerging challenge: noisy surroundings

By Graeme Harrison / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
October 24, 2014

Health care environments are changing. As technology and devices become more prominent, the bed rest required for a full patient recovery is being compromised by a rapidly emerging challenge: noisy surroundings.

Along with important aspects such as safety, sanitation, and expert medical care, an effective hospital experience now needs to provide audio levels that can ensure a more conducive healing environment to compliment the care and expertise provided by doctors, nurses, and staff.

In recent research, findings highlight high levels of ambient noise throughout various areas as a main inhibitor to more complete patient recoveries in addition to negatively impacting the performance of staff.

To reduce audio pollution in hallways, patient rooms and operating theaters, hospitals have begun implementing a wide range of noise-reduction strategies, which ensure that clinics and hospitals remain places where patients can experience a healing environment and peacefully recuperate while providing an optimal work setting for medical personnel. 

The noise effect

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to noise levels in excess of 55dB — which is actually quieter than the murmurs of a typical office space — disturbs sleep, raises blood pressure, and can even increase the incidence of heart disease. In clinics and hospital wards, where patients are often weakened by medical procedures, sound levels have been measured as high as 94dB — louder than a busy highway and nearly double the acceptable standard — reducing patients’ ability to properly heal while making it more difficult for staff to adequately concentrate.

In a survey by the Advisory Board Company, patients cited noise as the primary disturbance during hospitalization. The findings also showed that patients exposed to noise during the night lost an average of 76 minutes of sleep, further impacting their ability to tranquilly recuperate. To give patients the peace they need to rest, the WHO recommends overnight noise levels no louder than a maximum 40dB (equivalent to the hum of a residential refrigerator) across patient recovery wards, with the ideal goal of 30dB. 

For medical staff and support personnel, high decibel levels have the ability to negatively impact decision-making and on-the-job performance. Today’s average hospital exposes staff members to an alarm sound every 90 seconds, which has been shown to increase stress levels, fatigue, the difficulty to concentrate, and the occurrence of headaches — impacting the ability for health workers to effectively perform their functions within mission-critical processes. 

Many sounds, many sources

When polled, medical professionals identified paging systems and alarms as two of the top technology-related culprits for ambient noise in today’s health care settings. Other offenders include alarms, bedrails, carts, telephones, food and beverage dispensers, and pneumatic tubes. To tackle these challenges, health facilities have begun equipping their environments with more acoustically optimized design materials and technology that inherently help in reducing noise. For instance, at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, installing acoustic paneling and decentralizing nursing stations resulted in a reported 30 percent reduction in medical errors. At a hospital in the Bronx, the implementation of a comprehensive noise-reduction program helped the hospital reduce its decibel levels by a notable 40 percent. 

By rethinking the sound and acoustics in today’s health care settings by installing new materials, raising awareness, and implementing more sound-friendly technology, medical facilities can maintain their quality of care by providing the quiet, calming environments that are now known to be closely linked to more successful patient recoveries.

Sound solutions

In addition to acoustically optimizing their environments, health facilities can leverage the availability of advanced IT networks and technology to deploy a new generation of solutions to change how today’s connected hospitals manage sound levels within their environments. Enabled by the convergence of AV and IT equipment, successful innovations include the implementation of zoned paging, which allows healthcare environments to provide targeted announcements (or pages) only to specified areas to sustain a quieter atmosphere across the hospital. 

In traditional hospital settings, single zones (or all calls) are generally used to gain staff’s attention — resulting in the disruption to both patients and personnel across entire floors. As a result of receiving every page from every department, people become desensitized to alerts, focus is distracted, alarm fatigued increases, and patient care can be compromised. The problem can also directly affect a facility’s Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) score, damaging a hospital’s reputation within both the medical community and the community it serves.

However, by using the best practices of zoned paging, advanced technologies allow care providers to define specific areas where only targeted departments and their respective staff members receive relevant pages. As a result, staff is more responsive to announcements, contributing to greater concentration and better quality care. For patients, multi-zone paging protects their resting time by eliminating unnecessary announcements from other areas such as surgery rooms or emergency departments. 

These advanced systems send both live and preset messages, allowing for prioritization, so each message is passed to specified locations — reaching staff quicker while safeguarding offices, waiting family areas, and hospital rooms from any additional noise. 

Hospitals can also add more acoustically absorbent materials to complement technology enhancements. Through the expertise of designers and professional acousticians, health care institutions can design their interiors specifically for their intended purposes by addressing potential sound disruptions before they become a problem.

Other noise-reduction strategies include vetting equipment such as HVAC systems, computer fans, printers, telephones, and other peripherals for their noise levels. Even patient room furniture such as beds and chairs should be interacted with to determine what the everyday noise levels are to ensure they comply with healing environment protocols and guidelines. 

In response to an aging population, the United States is expected to spend up to $200 billion on new hospitals this decade . With the construction of these new facilities will come choices that will affect the way health care is delivered for many years to come. From noise-awareness campaigns to the implementation of modern-day technologies, hospitals can easily and cost-effectively implement changes to their soundscapes that will influence the effectiveness of their processes, staff, and equipment well into the future.

Survey after survey has shown that controlling noise improves patient conditions, staff decision-making, and the overall quality of medical care. By recognizing this as an important environmental aspect that can both improve the way treatment is delivered or hinder the recuperation process, hospitals can become better models for healing, recuperation, and optimal care. 

Graeme Harrison is the executive vice president of marketing, Biamp Systems.

 

 




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