Noisy Hospitals…and a New Role for Hospital Gowns?

HHTM Staff: Most of us have been hospitalized overnight at some point and ALL of us can report that hospitals are noisy places. We didn’t need research to tell us that, but there is now research confirming hospital noise, providing noise level data, and measuring noise effects on sleep.  Read on for this and our fanciful solutions.   

The study, published online January 9, 2012 in Archives of Internal Medicine, was supported by the National Institute on Aging. For 155 days, researchers measured hospital noise in the rooms of 106 patients >50 years old.  Noise levels exceeded recommended levels most of the time (see Table 1).  Patients reported the most “disruptive” noises were other people talking: Staff conversations were most bothersome (65% of all complaints), followed closely by roommates (54%).  They were less bothered by  electronic noises:  alarms (42%), intercoms (39%), and pagers(38%).

Table 1.

Table 1. Hospital Noise Levels, Measured and Recommended

Average Noise Level (dB) Maximum Noise Level (dB)
Daytime

48.0

80.3

Nighttime

38.2

69.7

Recommended by World Health Organization (WHO)

30.0

40.0

Patients rated their sleep length and their sleep patterns were measured with a wrist-worn monitor (actigraphy). 42% of the patients reported that they slept less in the hospital than they did at home.  Those exposed to the highest noise levels slept 76 minutes less, on average, than those exposed to the lowest noise levels.  The study concluded that high levels of noise in hospitals are associated with “clinically significant sleep loss” and recommended that:

“Hospitals should implement interventions to reduce nighttime noise levels in an effort to improve patient sleep, which may also improve patient satisfaction and health outcomes.”

Hospitals are loud but we’re going to wait for the next study before we yell “fire.” The decibel levels in Table 1 are not reported by measurement scale, making them difficult to interpret at best. Even without a scale, the numbers seem low. The summary report implies that chainsaw noise is around 80 dB.  That’s a quiet chainsaw.  Let’s wait for qualified numbers and revisit this study.

Another reason for sleep disruption is that patients are frequently awakened by nighttime staff monitoring.  Now, a new cloth technology called “wearable electronics” holds promise to make hospital stays quieter in all regards — if we can just get somebody interested in our idea. The new cloth technology uses

“conductive thread, sensors, batteries and small microprocessors [to create] daytime computerized wearables … like T-shirts and coats that can show full-length videos or use GPS.”

Why not re-purpose hospital gowns to do the monitoring? That would eliminate all those chatty hospital staff members and free up cash to pay for the gowns.  You could sleep through the night as your gown quietly hums away, keeping track of your vitals.   In fact, why not build hearing aid technology into the gowns so you can leave your expensive hearing aids at home and not lose them at the hospital?  They might even let you take the gown home so you could hear in bed after you take your hearing aids off.

As you are probably anticipating, the lovely faux fur headphones in the picture above are an example of wearable electronics that you can make at home and take to the hospital to block out your noisy roommate.  We’ve helpfully included a video tutorial on how to make them.

This post is partly tongue-in-cheek, but it addresses a known problem in health care that deserves some thought.  It’s a good idea to pack ear protection along with other basics in your preparedness kit.