Have you ever spent a night on a hospital ward? It is quite a soundscape. And a soundscape that could be very stressful for patients.
Not just the background hum that pierces the nightly silence but the jarring sound of an alarm, the bleeps from heart/lung machinery – all these sounds amplified by the size of wards.
James Weaver, doctoral student at Queen Mary University of London has made a study of hospital “noise”, something he became familiar with when he stayed with his wife, who was dying of cancer.
There is much we can learn from his comments, particularly the anxiety that can be induced by the noisy, stressful ambience of many hospitals.
He notes that hospitals are usually large buildings with cavernous rooms.
Sound is affected by the size of a room and can have a long reverberation time. This refers to the decay of a sound from its original source. The bigger the room, the longer a sound lasts.
Think of a large church. The sound of music reverberates through the church with a long tail of volume, whereas the same sound at home would take less time to dissipate. In a ward, the sound of an alarm, at a necessarily loud volume, would potentially have a long decay and begin merging with other sounds to create what seems like a cacophony to a patient. How can anyone rest with that, let alone remain calm?
Hospital rooms are designed to be easily cleaned so nearly always have shiny surfaces that reflect sound. Carpeting and soft furnishings would muffle it but are forbidden in busy wards. And the larger the ward, the longer the reverberation time.
You can see that hospitals such as the Nightingales, which are built in large facilities with nothing to deaden the sound, can be a problem. Long reverberation times and noisy soundscapes are distressing for patients and families and also cause difficulties for doctors trying to talk to patients.
If you factor in the use of PPE, communication becomes challenging, particularly for those with hearing loss.
Weaver says it would have been helpful if he and his wife had access to quiet spaces to discuss sensitive matters and I’m sure most patients and doctors would agree. Dedicated spaces with carpet and soft furnishings would damp down sounds.
Hospitals could install wall or ceiling acoustic panels to make listening easier. And we could question if all alarms are necessary or could be substituted with vibrating devices.