Noise and Hospitals

Noise and Sports Update:  The velodrome at the Olympics is a very noisy and loud place.  Read this piece about the 140 dB level! (Thanks to MJB for the lead.)

Noise in hospitals

Having just come back from seeing my mother in a hospital, I am reminded of how noisy they are: people talking at bedsides, IV machines beeping, carts rolling down halls, TVs, phones ringing, paging systems blaring, etc.

Hospitals have always been noisy places. George Prochnik traces the beginning of the anti-noise movement back to Mrs. Rice, who I have mentioned before.  It was she who started a campaign to have quiet zones around hospitals in NYC, back in 1904.  (Here is a link to an original newspaper article about her campaign, in which she notes that she is NOT against noise – only unnecessary noise.)  Here is an excerpt from the article, in which she outlines her initial goals:

She also wanted the police to “stop drunken brawls and noisy children’s sports near hospitals.” And she wanted the streets around the hospitals “paved with asphalt or wood.”

Mrs. Rice’s campaign was effective, and now there are rules and laws about noise levels OUTSIDE of hospitals.

BUT –  the INSIDES of hospitals are still noisy places.

This article quotes Florence Nightingale: “In her 1859 book “Notes on Nursing,” Florence Nightingale railed against unnecessary noise, calling it “the most cruel absence of care.”

And today we have even more noise. We now have the added noises of technology – beeps and pings, PA systems, air conditioning systems, etc. This article notes that “Worldwide, the sound levels inside hospitals average 72 decibels during the day and 60 decibels at night — far exceeding the standard of 40 decibels or less, set by the World Health Organization.”  These levels are not damaging to hearing, but definitely affect the possibility of recuperative rest. Here is a link to an article from ScienceDaily, with some related story links and a short video that summarizes the issue.

Another study in the USA revealed “… that a portable X-ray machine used on wards generated 98 decibels of noise, the equivalent of a motorcycle. Telephones and bedside alarms, which registered 80 decibels, were as loud as heavy lorry traffic.”

But all is not doom and gloom. Hospitals are quite aware of the noise issue and are trying to address it (as noted in the ScienceDaily link above.)  Here is a link to an article about how one hospital is trying to deal with the noise problem INSIDE the hospital. They did a study using 12 healthy subjects, and tracked the impact of noise, especially at night when patients are sleeping.  The results are disturbing – heart rates jumping, sleep disruptions, etc..  NOT an environment conducive to recovery. And so this particular hospital is implementing a number of changes to address the problem.

Here is another article.  At this hospital, two basic changes were made to address the noise problem: using personal communicators to page staff rather than overhead PA systems, and better sound insulation in the ceilings.

And here is a video looking at how a hospital in Texas tackled the noise issues.

One last side effect of our use of technology and in particular our use of alarms, especially in hospitals is ‘alarm fatigue’.  Alarm fatigue is what happens when we no longer react as quickly to alarms because we are so used to them that they become just another part of our soundscape, or because staff may simply not hear them in the overall noise.  This article is an interview from MacLean’s with acoustics expert Ilene Busch-Vishniac, in which she explains ‘alarm fatigue’ with reference to hospitals and discusses some ways of dealing with it.

So – IF you are going to be a patient in a hospital, make sure you bring earplugs. This will increase the odds that you will get a good night’s sleep!

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