How Noise Can Cost Your Hospital

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media, August 26, 2008

A hospital executive in my home state of Texas was telling me about a fairly minor surgery she had about 18 months ago. One of the things she remembers most about her recovery time at the hospital was how quiet it was. "I work in a hospital, I know how noisy it can be. I thought to myself, what is this hospital doing that we aren't?"

Her question got me thinking about hospital noise and how technology is being used to help reduce it. In this case, she later found out the hospital was using wireless voice-activated communication badges instead of an overhead PA system for the majority of their communications—a tool she later adopted for use at her own hospital.

Hospital noise-level might not be on the forefront of many executives' minds, and generally when I ask about priority lists, keeping decibel levels down doesn't quite make it to the top. But think about this: a team of Mayo Clinic nurses studying hospital noise found that during the morning shift change at Saint Mary's Hospital in Rochester, MN, noise levels reached 113 decibels—that's equal to the noise a jackhammer makes. And this: during a two-year research project, acoustics experts Ilene Busch-Vishniac and James E. West learned that hospital noise is among the top complaints of both patients and hospital staff members. During their studies, the researchers found that over the past four decades, average daytime hospital sound levels around the world have risen from 57 decibels to 72; nighttime levels have increased from 42 decibels to 60. All of these figures exceed the World Health Organization's hospital noise guidelines, which suggest that sound levels in patient rooms should not exceed 35 decibels.

Fast, reliable communication is vital in a hospital setting, and, thanks to technology, hospital workers have a variety of tools available them to facilitate instant communication. Smartphones, pocket-PCs, laptops, tablet-PCs, instant message, e-mail, remote voice and video communication are just a tiny sampling of how technology is being used to communicate faster. But since technology is often blamed for the increase in noise over the last few decades, I'm curious about how it's also being used to communicate quietly.

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