Alarming: No end to hospital noise

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Three years ago, the voluntary hospital accreditation body in the U.S. known as The Joint Commission issued a “National Patient Safety Goal” about the problem of “alarm fatigue” in American hospitals.  When the Joint Commission speaks, hospitals usually listen because their ability to participate in the Medicare program depends on the Commission’s approval. So what’s happened?

In a word: nothing. Last week, in a paper presented at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in New Orleans, the distinguished researcher and former ASA president Ilene Busch-Vishniac spoke about this continuing failure to address patient safety in hospitals.

What’s alarming about this situation is that 11 years ago Dr. Busch-Vishniac, when she was Dean of Johns Hopkins’ School of Engineering, published a nationally recognized paper on this very problem, a paper that has become a classic in her own field. Furthermore, in 2011 she was recognized for this work and invited by the Food and Drug Administration, the Joint Commission, and the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation to speak to national leaders of the healthcare profession about this problem at the first national meeting convened to focus on the problem of “alarm fatigue.” Thereafter Dr. Busch-Vishniac has continue to write and speak about the subject, for instance in this piece last year.

Noise in hospitals—of which “alarm fatigue” is the most egregious example—is a problem precisely because it endangers the health and even the survival of the thousands of people whose health is already severely compromised (they are hospitalized, after all). It’s critically important.

What this deplorable situation illuminates is the long-standing refusal of federal, state and local agencies in America to recognize that noise is, as one prominent medical authority stated, “much more than a nuisance.” Indeed, it is a serious public health problem. Why can’t the most “at risk” population in America—people hospitalized for their illnesses—have access to the peace and quiet they need to recover? If you are bothered by noise—from aircraft, or from motorcycles, or from leaf blowers or from any other source—keep in mind that you are not alone: even the sickest among us who are being treated in hospitals cannot escape the din.

Nobody is listening—yet—despite the evidence. In the meantime, we congratulate courageous and stubborn researchers like Dr. Busch-Vishniac who continue to push for change.  We need you, Dr. Busch-Vishniac. The money to fund research is hard to come by, but please don’t give up!

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *