Hospitals have a risky noise problem, experts say

Monitors beeping, equipment shuffling, and patients, nurses and physicians coordinating care can make hospitals uncomfortably loud places for individuals both with or without hearing disorders — heightening anxiety and causing headaches, irritability and more, according to an Aug. 10 viewpoint written by Zina Jawadi and Alexander Chern, MD, and published on the Association of American Medical Colleges website.

Ms. Jawadi is a medical student at the University of California's David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles and serves on the Hearing Loss Association of America’s board of directors and Dr. Chern is a fellow in otology, neurotology, and skull base surgery at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.

The authors cited a study from Johns Hopkins Hospital that found a daily average sound level of 50 to 60 decibels in hospitals, comparable to hearing a crying baby or vacuum cleaner, along with a trend of increasing noise levels over the past 45 years. This is significantly higher than the World Health Organization's proposed noise levels for hospitals, which range from a 35 to 45 A-weighted decibel [dB(A)] level during the day to a 20 to 35 dB(A) level at night.

"Studies have demonstrated that noise pollution may interfere with communication among medical team members and, consequently, adversely affect patient outcomes," the authors wrote. "Excess alarm notifications not only may exacerbate noise pollution but also are associated with increased alarm fatigue and medical errors."

To curb the negative effects of noise for patients and employees, the authors recommend taking five things into consideration: 

  1. Use technology to monitor noise levels.

  2. Take steps to reduce noise from surgical instruments, turn equipment with sound off when not in use, and keep earplugs around for employee and patient use if needed.

  3. Communicate effectively and reduce unnecessary conversations.
  4. Eliminate background noises as much as possible when communicating with patients.

  5. Identify opportunities for low-cost solutions like fixing squeaky doors or noisy equipment parts to help minimize noise.

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