Now is the Time to Prioritize Acoustics in Outpatient Facilities

The sudden rise in telemedicine has put renewed focus on acoustics.

By Natasza Naczas

We’ve all been there – sitting in a crowded waiting room at the doctor’s office, only to have your name called out for all to hear. Once you are in the exam area, too often you can hear every word of the consultation happening in the room next door. And it occurs to you that if you can hear them, they can hear you, too. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people had grown accustomed to this scenario, with nothing but paper-thin walls or even a fabric curtain providing a barrier between one patient and the next, particularly for routine visits. But the sudden rise in telemedicine has put renewed focus on acoustics. 

Practitioners are talking and asking questions via a computer screen, often above normal speaking levels. Patients might be in the comfort of their own home, but they have no way of knowing who else is overhearing the other end of the teleconference. Unless the whole encounter is taking place in a designated soundproof room, what assurances do they have that their doctor is not inadvertently broadcasting sensitive information? 

The problem is compounded by the increase of new medical facilities inhabiting non-traditional space, such as retail and office buildings, along with a boom in new medical office building (MOB) construction. International real estate investment firm Colliers notes a rise in MOB investments, with $17.4 billion invested in 2021, up from $11.9 billion the prior year, with no signs of slowing. 

These challenges stand in stark contrast to a growing emphasis on acoustics in the hospital setting, where noise reduction has been studied and implemented for years. The cacophony of alarms, machines, announcements, roller carts, phones, family and medical personnel conversations, HVAC systems and even rooftop helipads were found to have a detrimental effect on patients who above all else need rest to recuperate. 

The noise was also problematic for doctors, nurses and others on the patient care team who were stressed out by the constant barrage of beeps, shouts and vibrations. Sometimes, they could not even hear one another over the din, according to an early landmark study. 

In new hospital construction especially, acoustic consultants have helped dampen the sounds that can disrupt patients and invade privacy. While this is especially important for in-patient facilities, the effects of acoustic leaks on outpatient medical facilities cannot be ignored. 

In existing buildings and new construction, the issue of acoustics is rarely considered. Instead, the focus is typically on how quickly the space can open for business to start serving patients. But there are solutions each facility can implement to reduce excessive noise and protect patient privacy. 

Quick fixes to excessive volume 

If acoustics have been an afterthought, here are a few options that facility managers can use to improve the facility. They include:  

  • Acoustic panels. Washable acoustic panels can be added to existing wall spaces. Some even come in different shapes and colors to match the unique design of the space. The panels are typically easy to install with hooks or adhesives, allowing for removal to clean thoroughly. Unlike the acoustic materials of the past that were soft and porous and often harbored dirt, dust, bacteria and viruses, modern materials provide sound-dampening benefits while repelling microbes and fungus. 
  • Ceiling blankets. As with wall panels, large, above-ceiling blankets are used to reduce sound transmission between rooms. Ceiling blankets are dense and weighted to stop sound waves from passing through the material. 
  • Sound machines. Popular and inexpensive options to drown out most conversational audio, sound machines are staples in shared therapist offices. Some audio machines can generate various kinds of background noise, from pure static to soft music, while other providers use installations such as fountains that produce white noise as a byproduct. These can be placed in hallways and waiting rooms or outside exam rooms to keep sound from traveling. 

Designs with acoustics in mind 

For new medical office construction, it is important that the design team and project managers make acoustics a priority from day one. Key areas to focus on include: 

  • Machine noise. Flat, hard surfaces are the enemy of good acoustics, but this is doubly true for rooms with machinery. Designers and managers need to identify rooms that will be the most active, and house machinery in less disruptive areas. Even with this isolation, moving parts can cause vibrations, which can be minimized with spring or rubber isolators to reduce sound travel. 
  • Building materials. Generally, using acoustic materials in a design not only reduces unwanted noise but adds to the aesthetics of the space. Underlayment materials placed between layers of subflooring can dampen the sound from the floors, 
  • Soundproof insulation. A properly insulated space is important for temperature regulation, but it also can help with acoustics. Whether using standard insulation or the soundproof type, designers must be sure it is tightly packed before closing the walls. 
  • Soundproof room. If the budget does not allow for the entire facility to be soundproof, consider designating one room for this purpose. As with a recording studio, this room can be beneficial, especially for telemedicine appointments where doctors and patients are chatting virtually and often at a higher volume level given the digital interface. Some medical offices are even taking a page from coworking spaces and installing standalone, sound-dampening telephone booths for the purpose of hosting telemedicine appointments. 

With the growing popularity of outpatient care facilities, designing medical spaces for the experience rather than the appearance benefits all parties involved. 

Natasza Naczas is a project manager with Project Management Advisors (PMA)

October 10, 2022

Topic Area: Interior Design

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