As healthcare design caters to patient comfort, research has gone into studying how healthcare facilities designed to be quiet positively impact healing.
Healthcare facilities today aim to provide the best medical treatment combined with the most peaceful environment for recovery. This is not easy to achieve due to several noises associated with hospitals, some of which are unavoidable.
Various forms of noise can greatly impact patient and staff outcomes in healthcare environments, which is why design to maximise quiet is essential. Serious impacts of unwanted noise include blood pressure elevation, sleep loss, emotional exhaustion and staff burnout.
Several recent studies have shown that the noise levels in hospitals often surpass the recommended 30 decibels - slightly louder than a whisper - and often reach the equivalent of 100 decibels, or the noise level of a motorcycle.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set guidelines calling for background noise levels in patient rooms of 35 decibels during the day and 35 at night, and never to exceed 40 decibels during nighttime peaks. Evidence-based healthcare researcher Roger Ulrich says a 2005 study examined the noise levels of 35 published research studies and not one complied with the WHO noise guidelines.
Noise tends to be prominent in hospital settings due to flat surfaces, long hallways and medical equipment that is more sound reflecting than sound absorbing.
Noise is a common complaint during hospital stays and, as a result, more and more hospitals are aiming to increase patient satisfaction by implementing noise reduction strategies.
Not only does noise affect patients, but hospital staff can also be greatly impacted. Noise from medical equipment, voices, pagers and public address systems can distract caregivers, slowing down their pace of work or leading to errors.
Ulrich says a Swedish study on room acoustics found that when staff had better acoustical conditions, they reported less pressure and strain.
Architects can implement several design elements to new facilities or when renovating existing healthcare facilities to provide a quieter place to recover.
The St John of God hospital in Warnambool, Victoria, was recently ranked the best hospital in Australia by patients.
“Our hospital rooms are very private and offer a quiet sanctuary for patients, their families and visitors,” said the hospital's CEO, Glen Power.
Noise Reduction Strategies
Ulrich says there are several simple design strategies to effectively reduce noise levels, including single-patient bedrooms with enclosed walls right up to the ceiling. Installing sound-absorbing acoustical ceiling tiles reduces the sound that can reach adjoining areas and improves speech intelligibility within the room.
Single Bed Rooms: Most noise in multi-bed rooms comes from staff caring for other patients, visitors talking, medical equipment and patients coughing or crying out. Single bed rooms eliminate all of these noise sources.
Paging Systems: The use of pagers and public announcement systems should be reduced. Staff can be summoned individually rather than over the PA with a personal beeper device.
Ceilings and Floors: Absorptive tiles on the ceiling are a must as the ceiling is the largest uninterrupted surface in the facility. Absorptive tiles reduce the amount of noise that bounces off their surface back into the space, reducing echo. Rubber flooring and carpeting provide the highest level of noise reduction if they can be implemented while upholding sanitary requirements.
Structural Systems: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems are major contributors to hospital noise. Gasketing material should be added to doors to keep noise within a room and ventilation ducts should be situated where noise between rooms is not encouraged.
Sound-Masking Systems: Hospitals can maintain a consistent baseline volume by installing sound-masking systems in a grid pattern on the ceiling to control output and zoning. Loudspeakers distribute noise in a continuous, unobtrusive manner, maintaining an appropriate level of noise and covering up any noise below the level of the masking noise.
Door Hardware: Door hardware is a cost effective solution healthcare facilities can use to decrease unwanted noise. A number of options can prevent the loud slam every time a door is closed.
Quiet Electric Latch: Providing a quiet solution to traditional exit devices, the QEL requires less power than other electric latches and therefore produces less noise.
Door Silencers: Rubber door silencers stick to the door frame as sound absorbers. Doors can be closed silently as the silencer absorbs the force generated from the door shutting.
Healthcare architects, researchers, hospital staff and patients will all attest that noise pollution has negative effects on everyone in the facility and ultimately on the recovery of patients. Acoustic design strategies can ameliorate the problems to encourage patient satisfaction and speed up recovery times.
Acoustic design elements will improve speech intelligibility, increase patient confidentiality and reduce overall noise pollution, which will ultimately lead to greater patient satisfaction and more effective hospital staff.