SHHH – Patients Are Healing
We all know that a stay in a hospital is anything but quiet and restful. Monitors that beep continuously, rattling carts, TVs on in every room, ringing phones, squeaking wheels, and overhead pages all make it difficult to rest. Not only is all this noise annoying and unpleasant, but it can contribute to more serious problems. Numerous studies have shown that excessive noise interferes with patient recovery, contributes to medical errors, and makes hospitals an unhealthy, stressful work environment. Patients exposed to the loudest sounds can lose up to two hours of sleep each night, according to University of Chicago researchers. And sleep deprivation can trigger a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, fatigue, and mood changes.
Excessive noise is not only detrimental to patients—staff also suffer. A study by the Center for Health Design noted that a poorly-designed acoustical environment can lead to stress and burnout among staff members.
Just how bad is it? A study from 2008 found that noise levels in hospitals have risen to 72 decibels–nearly double the safe level of 40 decibels recommended by the World Health Organization. Indeed, dozens of studies have been published on how noise pollution in hospitals can detrimentally impact patients and staff alike.
According to David Sykes, a consultant who worked on a committee that revamped the federal hospital noise guidelines, “Noise levels in hospitals are twice what they were a few decades ago. They’re approaching the level of harm, and they’re definitely at the level of stress.”
The Silent Hospitals Help Healing (SHHH) campaign is a national program that addresses the problem of noise levels in hospitals, and many hospitals are implementing their suggestions to reduce excessive noise. Some of the initiatives include replacing squeaky wheels and using rubber wheels on carts and gurneys, installing noise-absorbing ceiling tiles, flattening patient room thresholds, and transmitting white background noise through speakers. Other methods include giving patients headphones rather than having TVs on for all to hear, putting clinician phones on vibrate, and rehabbing air handling systems. Another effective system is to simply ask staff to be more aware of how loud they are when they gather in groups. Swedish Covenant and Resurrection Health Care’s St. Joseph Hospital installed a meter called a “Yacker Tracker” that flashes red when noise levels around it rise.
Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago are installing special sound-damping (but easy-to-clean) carpet and contaminant-resistant wall panels, as well as relocating nurses’ stations, trash bins, and other noisy areas away from patient rooms. Some hospitals, including Massachusetts General, are experimenting with “quiet times,” when staff don’t bother patients, lights are dimmed, and doors are closed. Memorial Hospital in Belleville, IL, started sending text messages to doctors, which scaled back noisy overhead paging announcements from an average of 100 pages per day to only three.
Technology is responsible for much of the increase in noise in our century, but a quiet environment has always been known as conducive to healing. Virgil called medicine “the quiet art,” and Florence Nightingale wrote in her Notes on Nursing in 1859, that unnecessary noise is "the most cruel absence of care which can be inflicted either on sick or well."