Noise levels a perennial problem for hospitals

Anyone who's ever been to a hospital knows that they are anything but quiet. Machines, beepers, overhead pages and the regular interruptions of nurses and other staff make them less than restful places. However, those factors often can impair healing and make hospitals an unhealthy work environment, various studies have found, according to the Boston Globe.

At least one study from 2008 found that noise levels were well above World Health Organization recommended guidelines. Another study looking at noise in the EDs from 2005 showed noise levels to be above EPA standards. Indeed, dozens of studies have been published on how noise pollution in hospitals can detrimentally impact patients and staff alike.

"There are several vectors driving this, and they all point to the fact that A, people don't like [hospital noise], and B, it's bad for you," David Sykes, a consultant who worked on a committee that revamped the federal hospital noise guidelines, told the Globe. "Noise levels in hospitals are twice what they were a few decades ago. They're approaching the level of harm, and they're definitely at the level of stress."

Now, hospital builders and architects are paying attention, as well. There are new materials that meet hospitals' needs for ease of cleaning and sterility but aren't as echoing or noisy as linoleum and bare walls.

Other ideas gaining traction include giving patients headphones rather than having the TVs on for all to hear, using soft rubber on cart wheels, and simply asking staff to be more aware of how loud they are when they gather in groups. Some facilities use warning systems to let staff know when things get too loud, and others are experimenting with quiet times, when staff doesn't bother patients, lights are dimmed and doors are closed. Massachusetts General Hospital is one of the "quiet time" hospitals. It has been working on noise abatement for nearly two years. Among its strategies are providing patients with ear plugs and looking for ways to measure the success of its various efforts. 

One consultant, Susan Mazer of Healing Healthcare Systems, says there are even quantifiable benefits from such programs, including reductions in medical errors at one of the facilities with which her organization works, and a more than 10 percent improvement in patient satisfaction scores at another.

For more information:
- read this Boston Globe piece
- check out this hospital newsletter from Massachusetts General Hospital from 2008
- read these archived Healing HealthCare Systems pieces here and here
- check out these various studies on noise levels from the National Center for Biotechnology Information
  - study 1
  - study 2
  - study 3
  - study 4