Healing With the Ear In Mind

Posted on June 12, 2013


Acoustics in hospitals is finally being heard.

The loudness of the hospital environment, and its negative effect on healing, is now a topic healthcare administrators want to listen to.  I think that is because it is now linked to the CMS patient satisfaction scores, and hence reimbursement rates.  Sadly, most healthcare systems are so buried under an avalanche of other issues, if there is no immediate money attached to a concern, it is drowned out.  Until now, acoustics was buried under that avalanche.

Thus, the unsuitable acoustics in hospitals is not a new story.  If more administrators were patients, or even visitors of patients, they would understand the rub.  A late healthcare architect colleague took great notes while he was an extended patient at Johns Hopkins back in 2004.  Many of his negative observations were related to interruptions due to noise or poor scheduling of staff care (blood draw at 5am, really).  And as a visitor, equipment drives me nuts after 30 seconds of beeping incessantly until it is “reset” by the next nurse, which is always a minimum ten minute wait.

Today, the Advisory Board pulled together reports from the Wall Street Journal and the Beryl Institute on effects of acoustics on patients, and hospital tactics for eliminating the annoyance.  ‘Quiet kits’?  ‘Quiet teams’?  I understand clinical care is a busy endeavor, but footfall noise is minor compared to other hospital sounds, which should not take a lot more effort to eliminate in design (or through procurement):

  • Medical equipment
  • Doors (manual and automatic)
  • Through-wall noise (conversation, televisions, toilet flushing)
  • Intercom / announcements
  • Light “buzzing” and HVAC systems
  • Alarms

Most of these items are so grating on both patients and visitors, more benign disturbances like through-window traffic or construction noise would almost be welcome.  If I were a healthcare system or group purchasing organization with some clout, I would insist on equipment that could be silenced, ideally remotely.  If a nurse is not around to hear the beeping, such noise only tortures the patient until the patient can notify the nurse.

As a Facilities Director related to me last month, unfortunately the patient surveys do not allow the patient to list what type of noise affected them.  With no cause, it is pretty difficult for hospitals to improve.  Acoustics:  another item on the learning curve—for both healthcare providers, and those that collect the survey data.  Surveyors:  help the hospitals help patients by asking for more information.