Most Common Complaint in Hospitals? Noise.

A stay in the hospital is a noisy experience; between monitors, alarms, TVs, hospital personnel, pagers, and cellphones, a patient staying overnight is bombarded with sounds from all sides. According to the Wall Street Journal, hospitals are becoming increasingly creative in finding ways to lower the noise level, mask invasive sounds, and distract patients from the din.

Facing possible Medicare financial penalties has prompted hospitals to alter practices and habits that add to the hubbub. Some are changing the overhead pager system, others permitting patients to shut the doors to their rooms and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign, while some are designating sleep hours which mean in some wings unless absolutely necessary, there’ll be no routine checks of vital signs. Other changes some hospitals are making include installing white-noise machines, sound-absorbing ceiling tiles and carpets in rooms and hallways, providing closed-circuit “relaxation programming” of calming music and pictures of nature, and “quiet kits” consisting of sleep masks and earplugs.

Studies show that hospital noise is more than just irritating; by disturbing patients’ sleep, it can actually stimulate increases in blood pressure, delay wound healing, and interfere with pain management.

Last year, after Medicare started basing part of hospital reimbursement on quality measurements like patient ratings on quality of care, hospitals really focused on increasing their noise-reduction efforts. The most recent figures from the federal program for the year ended in June 2012 and showed that just 60% of patients said the area outside of their rooms was quiet at night, the lowest satisfaction score given from the 27 questions about the hospital experience.

The Beryl Institute, a nonprofit that helps hospitals increase patient satisfaction, released a 2013 State of Patient Experience report in April that indicated hospital administrators ranked noise reduction as the most important priority for the second time since the last report conducted in 2011. Beryl mentioned changing behavior and culture as the biggest obstacles.

“There is a constant tension in hospitals between the need to create a place where patents can rest and heal and the realities of an active and almost chaotic work environment,” says Beryl president Jason Wolf. Noise can never be totally eliminated, he adds, but “we can counteract it.”
While many hospitals now have only private rooms, a factor that makes quietness more difficult is hospitals’ growing openness in their visiting hours and cellphone policies. Also, numerous hospitals are asking personnel to use “library” voice because soft whispers can be more soothing than normal speaking tones.