Studying hospital noise and patient recovery

by webadmin on June 21, 2012

Are hospitals too noisy? According to a June 12 Associated Press article, researchers have concluded that they are not only too noisy, but intensive-care units tend to be the noisiest with decibels equaling that of a shout almost 50 percent of the time.

Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, sleep medicine chief at Massachusetts General Hospital, along with researchers from Harvard and Cambridge Health Alliance, began digging a little deeper into the noise complaints on patient-satisfaction surveys. They wanted to investigate how this noise affects the sleep of the ill and recovering by studying how it affected 12 healthy volunteers.

They first recorded the noises in a Boston community hospital, then played these noises back for the volunteers over a three-night period in Mass General’s sleep lab.

The researchers found the electronic sounds, specifically the beeping from IV machines, were more likely to awaken patients than a flushing toilet, even if those noises weren’t any louder than a whisper. Once disturbed, the team discovered a patient’s heart rate could jump by 10 beats per minute. However, most patients were unlikely to remember these disruptions in the morning.

This lack of memory greatly disturbed Dr. Ellenbogen, because as the AP points out, patient-satisfaction surveys have been underestimating the problem all along. And Dr. Ellenbogen is swift to point out that these reactions to noises were from healthy volunteers. Imagine how the same noises affect the sick and the elderly.

For all we know about the dangers of not getting enough sleep, surprisingly little is known about how disrupted sleep affects those ill and recovering. Some studies have shown that elevated noise requires more sedatives and medications be given to patients.

To confront these issues, a few hospitals have started to experiment with lowering noise levels. John Hopkins opened a new building designed for a quieter environment. Older hospitals, unequipped with this ability, such as Mass General, have instituted “quiet hours” where lights, voices, and all other activities are lowered.

But, Dr. Ellenbogen says, until hospitals learn to control noise, it’s ultimately up to the patients to demand a quieter environment.

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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