As an electronics musician, to Yoko Sen, her most valuable of the five senses is that of hearing. So when Yoko fell sick and spent time in and out of hospital she began to realize just how noisy most hospitals are.
She says. “I was pretty disturbed by the noise, in particular, those beeps and alarms but also overhead speakers, people talking and screaming, doors getting slammed. It’s just a really hectic sound environment.”
A study by the Mayo Clinic shows that in the past 50 years noise in hospital wards has increased from 57 to 70 decibels in the daytime and from 42 to 60 decibels at night. This contrasts sharply with the World Health Organization guidelines which say that noise should be kept to a maximum of 30-35 decibels.
It’s more than just the general annoyance or the loss of sleep.
The WHO says that noise levels above 55 decibels can lead to an increase in heart disease, diabetes, depression and complications in childbirth.
It isn’t just the patients who are affected by the sound levels but also the nursing staff, who report a pervasive problem called ‘alarm fatigue’ – where, because of ambient noise, nurses become desensitized to the sound of alarms.
In addition, a study by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses shows that between 72 to 99 per cent of all alarm calls are false. In a hospital such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, which registers 350 alarm calls every day that is an awful lot of annoying and avoidable noise
To try to alleviate some of these issues Yoko initiated a start-up called Sen Sound. Yoko is the artist-in-residence at Washington’s Sibley Memorial Hospital, so together with the Sibley Innovation Hub, she helped devise a new set of more soothing, less intrusive hospital alarms which will be released soon through a company called Medtronic. Yoko is also creating new sounds specifically for paediatric wards and clinics utilizing sounds made by children themselves.
They interviewed 40 patients and 10 staff in the Medical-Surgical and Orthopedic unit, asking questions such as:
- How did you sleep last night? Was there any noise that disturbed you?
- Please walk me through all the sounds you have heard staying in this room.
- What is the most disturbing sound to you? How did it make you feel?
- What is your favorite sound? Is there any sound that makes you feel safe?
- At home, what is your relationship to sound? Do you prefer silence? Do you play music often? What is your favorite music?
- What do you wish you could hear in the hospital? What do you wish to feel?
Then, with the help of an acoustic engineer, they created a “sound map” to analyze the acoustic environment of a unit. Based on the research, they have created recommendations and action items to help the staff improve patients’ perception of noise.
Yoko says, “Often the experience of staff members gets overlooked. But the fastest and most effective way to affect patient experience is really to improve the experience of nurses and doctors.”
To this end, she has developed a concept called the Tranquility Room. Here, with dim lighting, comfortable seating, aromatherapy and a soundtrack developed by Sen Sounds, nursing staff can enjoy a period of rest and quiet. A Tranquility Room has been installed at Sibley and the effect has been to reduce staff stress and improve their patient care skills. Now other hospitals are looking into the idea.
So in the future, a stay in hospital, never the most restful experience, may be made a little less stressful by a reduction in the noise levels and an improvement in the ability of the staff to care for their patients