Why Are Hospitals So Loud?

Quiet sign hospital zone
Sometimes, signs are just ironic. Lester Balajadia/Shutterstock

Being in a hospital is a stressful enough, but now researchers are looking at one unique characteristic of this environment — hospital noise — to understand how it affects patients.

Hospital noise is pretty much what it sounds like. It's all the alarms, incessant beeping, intercoms, generators, respirators, ventilators and a squeaky door or two. Add in the visitors, maintenance workers, and the pitter patter and clatter of staff and you’ve got an environment that's far from the peace and quiet patients need.

Noise Free America, a group that promotes quiet, even named the American hospital industry the recipient of one of its monthly Noisy Dozen awards, pointing to the disastrous effect the "unwanted racket" can have on both patients and hospital employees.

Many professionals are aware of it, and they’re concerned with how the noise effects patients.

"Hospital noise levels inside and out need to be addressed," says Huntington, New York-based eye doctor Bonnier Sager in the press release. "Patients often complain that noise interferes with their sleep and increases stress ... Excessive noise spikes blood pressure, increases cortisol levels, and interferes with wound healing and pain management." All of these things can impede a patient's ability to recover.

Researchers call for silence

A 2005 John Hopkins study found that since 1960, average daytime hospital noise levels have risen from 57 decibels to 72 decibels. Nighttime noise levels increased from 42 decibels to 60 decibels.

Flash forward to 2018, when King's College of London researchers found that noise levels in ICU units in the U.K. have reached upwards of 100 decibels.

A 2010 Maryland Medical Center study and a 2015 Polytechnic Institute study show that constant noise has an effect on the well-being of patients as well as the psychological health of nurses and anyone else who lives and works in that environment.

Recent reports have noted that out of 12,000 clinicians, 87 percent said they suffer from alarm fatigue — a form of fatigue and annoyance the occurs as a result of alarms that frequently and irrelevantly go off.

Is there a solution?

The research also shows we’ve made little effort to curb the cacophony.

In 1995, The World Health Organization attempted to implement guidelines to limit noise levels in patients' rooms to 35 decibels. As the numbers suggest, it doesn’t appear that many hospitals are taking these guidelines very seriously.

A 2017 article in SAGE Journals reported that some hospitals have made efforts to reduce noise levels by implementing "quiet times," installing sound-masking systems, sound-absorbing walls and ceiling tiles and an increase in the number of private rooms, as the video at the top delves into.

Reducing the noise volume of hospitals is going to take work, and ironically, we may create a lot of noise to do it. But if it makes this environment more conducive to good health, it will be worth the racket.