Noise pollution in hospitals -- a rising problem

November 18, 2018

In an editorial published today in the BMJ, researchers from King's College London and the University of the Arts London (UAL) argue that it is a worsening problem, with levels regularly exceeding international recommendations.

"Even in intensive care units, which cater for the most vulnerable patients, noise levels over 100dB have been measured, the equivalent of loud music through headphones," said lead author Dr Andreas Xyrichis.

Noise in hospitals is known to hinder communication among staff, causing annoyance, irritation and fatigue, and detrimentally impact the quality and safety of healthcare. High noise levels and noise-induced stress impact negatively on staff performance and wellbeing, compromising caring behaviour and contributing to burnout.

The team highlight that it can also impact a patients' ability to rest, heal and recover, since it has been linked to the development of ICU psychosis, hospitalisation-induced stress, increased pain sensitivity, high blood pressure and poor mental health.

"We know hospital noise has disruptive consequences for sleep - machine sounds in particular have a greater negative effect on arousal than human voices. Post-hospitalisation recovery is also compromised. For example, coronary care patients treated during noisy periods were found to have a higher incidence of rehospitalisation compared to those treated during quieter periods," explained Andreas.

Patients report that hospital noise can have a cumulative effect on their hospital experience. Patients who are in hospital for several nights are left feeling trapped and stressed, leading to requests for premature discharge from hospital and heightened risk of trauma and readmission.

The team from King's and UAL believes that the following areas urgently need to be addressed to ensure significant progress in this slow-moving field: "Measures to tackle this problem have included ear plugs, noise warning systems, acoustic treatment panels, educational initiatives and noise reduction protocols, which have provided some benefit," said Andreas.

"However, so far, patients have been seen as passive recipients of hospital noise rather than active participants in its creation. It is essential that future solutions should have greater patient participation as a key feature.

"Guides about potential ward sounds could also enhance patients' understanding of their surroundings and increase relaxation. Sound masking - the addition of background, broadband sound optimised for particular environments to reduce noise-induced disturbance - has also been used widely in open-plan offices for many years and has recently shown promise for improving sleep in hospitals."
-end-


King's College London

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