Hospitals are noisy places

It’s not a secret that hospitals can be quite noisy both from equipment and from all of the people around, both hospital workers and patients and their visitors. And typically I figure that the best way to reduce the noise is to engineer the rooms and spaces so the noise is reduced – either through blocking, absorbing or channeling the noise to other areas. One thing I sometimes forget about though is the social aspect and affecting the culture of the space, like by posting signs up reminding people to keep their voices down, which is an option that works especially when funds for a full redesign of a space or getting new quieter equipment is limited. It seems that at least one hospital has resorted to doing this – by installing large visual sound level cues that warn when it’s getting too loud – and it’s working.

The biggest issue with hospital noise is talking, not the beeping monitors or rattling carts, Busch-Vishniac said.

That’s why at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, four “sound ears” have been installed in the neonatal intensive care unit for premature and sick infants.

Babies and their developing nervous systems are more sensitive to noise than adults, said Cheryl Aubertin, a neonatal nurse at CHEO.

Each sound ear displays dots in the shape of an ear that change from green to yellow to red as noise levels increase above a set level.

“It gives a visual effect [cue] for staff who are coming into the rooms,” said Aubertin. “Is it too loud? Should I keep the noise down?”

Nurses no longer need to remind visitors to hush; signs do it for them.

I’ve seen this being marketed mostly to industrial facilities, but have never actually seen this  installed anywhere. It seems the hospital is the perfect place for this device. For a new hospital though, I’d still look into engineering/design of the space to reduce noise too.

In contrast, since Woodstock Hospital in southwestern Ontario opened a new facility in 2011, the community hospital has billed itself as a “place of respite.” Along with environmental and energy efficiency, noise was a consideration in the design, including:

  • Smaller nursing stations staffed by fewer nurses who are found closer to patients’ rooms.
  • 70 per cent of the rooms are private.
  • Ceilings have sound-absorbing tiles.
  • Overhead loudspeakers were moved to the hallways instead of over patients’ beds.
  • Nurses uses wireless phones set on vibrate to communicate, reducing pages on loudspeakers.
  • High-traffic areas like the X-ray and CT scan departments now have their own elevators.

At the previous location, patients complained of noise from people walking about, recalled nurse Jackie MacKenzie, a director of patient care in acute care wings.

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