deadly decibels how noisy hospitals can endanger patients

If asked to compare the noise level of the average hospital emergency room with another setting, there is a good chance most people might say a library or a classroom, two settings where the noise seldom rises above the level of animated conversation.

As it turns out, however, these two guesses would be very far off the mark, as the setting with noise levels most akin to the average hospital emergency room is actually the airport tarmac.

While this may seem hard to believe, consider that an associate professor at the University of Arizona has actually taken the time to measure the noise level in several hospital emergency rooms during shift changes.

Somewhat shockingly, she has consistently measured noise levels reaching 100-110 decibels. To put this in perspective, typical human speech measures somewhere between 45 to 65 decibels while a jet engine measures somewhere between 100-110 decibels.

Why exactly do the noise levels get so high in emergency rooms during shift changes?

“All of the equipment is going for 20 patients. And now 20 more nurses walk in and they’re each having one-to-one conversations about each patient’s status and everyone’s speaking above the level of the EKG alarm and the overhead announcements and the ventilator systems,” she said.

While these types of high noise levels can certainly be irritating to the average person, they can prove to be potentially deadly for patients.

Studies have consistently demonstrated that excessively loud noise can disrupt the sleeping patterns of vulnerable hospital patients and even cause rapid spikes in their blood pressure.

Furthermore, the constant ringing of loud alarms can lead to the onset of a condition known as “alarm fatigue,” meaning that hospital staff hears so many alerts during the course of their shifts — and so many false alarms — that they simply discount them.

The good news, however, is that more and more professionals have recognized the dangers posed by excessive hospital noise and are currently hard at work developing solutions.

For instance, the aforementioned professor is currently working with a fellow professor from the University of California-San Diego to develop a device they call the sound bender. Roughly the size of a cable box, the device is equipped with 12 speakers designed to channel sound to an exact area, meaning it could be directed to the ears of particular persons in settings like the operating room or nurses’ station.

“We’d like to be able to do announcements that just the nurses can hear and that are not going to wake up patients when they’re dozing,” said the UC-San Diego professor of the sound bender’s envisioned purpose.

Given the dangers outlined above, it’s perhaps time for hospitals to consider listening to the possibility of implementing new technology to reduce noise levels.

Consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if hospital negligence has taken an unacceptable toll on your health or the health of a loved one.

Source: KPBS, “UC San Diego researchers try to quiet noisy hospitals,” Angela Carone, Feb. 25, 2014

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