Alarms beeping, gurneys rattling, and televisions blaring.
It's enough to keep hospital patients awake when all they want to do is sleep.
To bring down the volume, Texas Health Ft. Worth has installed stoplights in hallways throughout the hospital to warn workers when the noise level gets too high.
It’s just one way that hospitals are addressing the noise problem.
Noise that keeps patients awake is more than an annoyance, says Karen Reed, administrative director of medical affairs at Texas Health Ft. Worth. Sleep disruptions can elevate blood pressure, slow wound healing, and heighten anxiety. Infants in neonatal intensive care can have increased heart and respiratory rates. Several studies have found that a noisy environment can contribute to medical and nursing errors.
And, hospitals have been getting louder over the years. John Hopkins University researchers found that, since 1960, the noise level in hospital has climbed from 57 to 72 decibels — noisier than a vacuum cleaner.
The EPA and World Health Organization recommend 35 decibels, barely a whisper, during the day, and 40 at night in patients’ rooms.
Noises that people tolerate under normal circumstances can make them feel more anxious in a hospital. Adding to the stress is the sound of medical equipment that beeps and buzzes around the clock.
“The very technology that has improved patient care has also increased noise levels in hospitals,” says Dr. David Smith, medical director for the trauma program at Texas Health Ft. Worth. One low-tech solution that the hospital uses is the Yacker Tracker, a signal light that turns red when the noise level gets too high. When the signals were installed throughout the hospital in September, the average noise level ranged from70 to 80 decibels, the equivalent of a loud conversation and just short of a motorcycle starting. Since then, it has dropped to between 50 and 60 decibels, the sound of normal talking tone. The goal is to decrease it to 35 decibels.
The hospital also lowered the volume on telephones and overhead speakers used for announcements. Some nurses have turned their pagers to vibrate to keep things quieter.
At Texas Health and other area hospitals, the Continuous Ambient Relaxation Environment Channel, or CARE, provides soft background music and scenery that promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety, according to Susan Mazer, president of Healing HealthCare Systems, a company that develops tools that use music in the healthcare industry.
The soothing music is intentionally unfamiliar and provides respite from the auditory stressors common to hospitals, Mazer says.
The Andrews Women’s Hospital at Baylor All Saints Medical Center in Ft. Worth uses a monitoring system in its neonatal unit that sets off warning lights if the sound gets too loud, spokeswoman Mary Johnson says. Noise-reducing mats also cut down on disturbing sounds in the unit. Random “pink noise” is piped in to offset other sounds.
Since Texas Health Ft. Worth started focusing on reducing noise, the hospital has become a more peaceful place for patients and staff, Reed says. The pilot program has been so successful that Texas Health is considering expanding it to other hospitals.
Lydia Richey of Benbrook, who was recently hospitalized at Texas Health Ft. Worth, said she noticed that her sleep was not disrupted by loud noises.
“It's quiet, very pleasant,” she says. “If I have to be in the hospital, it's very nice.”
Noise Levels (sound measured in decibels)
150: rock music I
130: firearms I
110: dance club U
90: lawn mowerI
70: restaurant background noise U
50: rainfall E
30: library whisper
SOURCE: AMERICAN SPEECH-LANGUAGE HEARING ASSOCIATION
JAN JARVIS, 817-390-7664