- Apr 24 2014
Beeping monitors, ringing alarms, overhead speakers and chiming phones: advances in technology have caused noise in hospitals to double in recent decades and the resulting intense soundscape is full of threatening noise, according to Julian Treasure, sound expert and chairman of The Sound Agency.
“Human beings have learned over a very long period of time that when birds are singing, we’re pretty safe,” says Treasure. In general, sounds affect how we feel, both physically and emotionally. When the pleasant chirping of birds is replaced with alarms, hissing machines and alert messages on loud speakers, we feel threatened. These threat sounds have very serious effects on heart rate, breathing, hormone levels and even brainwaves, says Treasure.
Hospitals are a 24-hour operation: when patients try to get much-needed sleep during their recovery, the staff and machines keep on working.
While each sound may not wake patients, disturbances prevent qualitative sleep. A 2012 sleep study found that when a patient’s sleep is disrupted, even for a few seconds, heart rate markedly increases. Furthermore, as humans have been genetically programmed to sleep lighter in threatening environments, when awoken by sounds, heart rates also jump, further hindering healing.
“We simply don’t rest when we are surrounded by threats,” says Treasure. “And our bodies need sleep when recovering from illness.”
A wide range of consequences, such as increased risk of heart attack, stroke, gastric disorders, mental anxiety disorders and stress are linked to noise exposure over long periods of time, says Treasure. In relation to hospital staff, long-term exposure to noise can have negative effects on patient care due to lack of concentration, frustration or fatigue. Medication dispensing errors have been specifically linked to hospital environments with high noise levels.
Although veteran hospital workers may feel accustomed to the hectic soundscape, “Noise affects us even when we are not aware of it,” says Treasure. Researchers coined the term “alarm fatigue” to refer to situations when medical staff is so inundated with ringing alarms that they become desensitized to the sound. Not only does this fatigue lower the quality of patient care, but it has lead to several avoidable patient deaths as well.
“It’s not necessarily about aiming at a decibel level,” says Treasure. “It’s about aiming at a pleasant, non-threatening sonic environment which promotes and supports recovery.”
Taking the first step is simple, according to Treasure: “I encourage hospital decision makers to spend a day just listening. Sit in a waiting room, spend time lying in a patient’s bed and ask yourself – Do we need all these sounds? Could we replace these sounds with something more healthy?”
Hospitals are for healing. While this may be the purpose, it is not always the reality. Sound expert Julian Treasure explains how the soundscape that envelops hospital patients and staff impacts overall quality of life and the healing process.
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