Noisy hospitals pose patient safety risks

Hospital noise--which can become as loud as a jet engine at some points during the day--can harm patients' sleep patterns and blood pressure. As a result, researchers at the University of California, San Diego are working on ways to reduce noise levels, according to KPBS.

Normal human speech is between 45 and 65 decibels, Eve Edelstein, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Arizona, told KPBS. However, during shift changes in emergency departments, Edelstein has measured levels of 100-110 decibels, "as loud as a jet engine," she said.

"All of the equipment is going for 20 patients. And now 20 more nurses walk in and they're each having one-to-one conversations about each patient's status and everyone's speaking above the level of the EKG alarm and the overhead announcements and the ventilator systems," she said.

Noise pollution also contributes to stress among hospital staff, Edelstein said. In addition, exposure to the constant sound of alarms often leads to fatigue, which 19 out of 20 hospitals named as a top patient safety concern this year.

Because of these concerns, Edelstein is collaborating with UC San Diego music and sonic arts professor Peter Otto on noise reduction strategies, according to the article. For example, Otto has developed a sound bender, a small machine that directs sound. In a hospital, a sound bender could restrict sound to the people who need to hear it, Otto told KPBS. If a hospital directed the machine at a nurses' station, it could project announcements specifically to nurses without waking patients or disturbing other staff, or it could keep alarms from disrupting surgeries.

"What if we just had the interesting messages for the anesthesiologist pointed at him and the things the surgeon needs to pay attention to are only directed to his or her listening space[?]" Otto said. "The nurses might have another stream they are paying attention to."

Otto also uses a program that simulates the effects of different building materials, room sizes and room shapes on acoustics, according to the article, which saves the time and money of drawing up mockups and helps designers predict sound clarity.

To learn more:
- read the KPBS article