Hospital Acoustics Report

Posted on February 4, 2011


Healthcare Design’s November issue had an article on the “soundscape” of hospitals, titled “Too Noisy to Heal”. The authors described soundscape as the combination of positive and negative sounds in the treatment environment. The piece looks at what is known and what still needs attention in regard to acoustic design.

Like other aspects of the healthcare environment (exposure to natural light, for example), it is no surprise that less than ideal conditions negatively affect healing. Poor acoustics can contribute to poor outcomes from patients and can be detrimental to staff. In patients it can increase healing time and the need for pain medication, while care providers can experience stress symptoms, decreased mental efficiency, and decreased short-term memory.

Hospital acoustics can be harsh. In an earlier post on the patient experience, a former colleague of mine who was also a long-term hospital patient, made several notes on this topic. In my opinion, the poor performance of hospital acoustics is due in part to lack of attention by the designers, and lack of awareness by staff and medical equipment designers. Some reasons mentioned in the article I disagree with, such as healthcare providers are so used to poor environments they basically do not know what a pleasant environment is (positive environments are intuitive and do not need to be learned), or healthcare acoustics are a new area of specialization (acoustics as a body of knowledge has been around for millennia and behaves no differently in a hospital).

I am a bit confused that the authors feel not enough is known to know how to ameliorate the problems. True, from a hard facts  perspective it is difficult to sell the business case that a kinder acoustic environment equals X hours shorter in recovery time which equals Y more admissions and Z more revenue. I appreciate the need to base decisions on ROI; however, there are many parts of providing care that should be executed simply because it is the right thing to do—and the balance sheet will inevitably benefit.

When it comes to the five senses, I have to defer again to my past support for Planetree and their philosophy. It would be a disservice to patients that paralysis by analysis would prevent any acoustic changes from getting done because it is not a measurable investment. On a gut level it is clear what should be done:  install softer, sound-absorbing interior materials, procure equipment with functions that can be remotely monitored or signal differently than with sound, and revise noisy operations that do not interrupt patient sleep and routine.

Healing is a resource-intensive endeavor for the human body and it takes all focus and energy. Any wasted energy on the external environment distracts from the healing process. Humans have a few universal basic needs and a restful environment for sleep and recovery is one of them.

 As the article points out, not all sounds can be eliminated because nurses respond to and execute a significant amount of their work based on auditory cues. I believe more research can be done on the effects of positive sounds and sound masking. And somehow we might even be able to apply technology in an as-of-now unknown way to enhance acoustics in interior healthcare environments. Transparency on the patient side will allow some insights into ‘consumer’ behavior as to why some choices are made—and they are not always based on outcomes.

Healthcare acoustics is another likely target for something that gets very little notice when it works well, and catches many complaints when it has been designed poorly. The next time you are in the patient perspective, take note of what you do, and do not hear, and how it makes you feel.  I am interested in how this evolves.

Posted in: Interior Design