Hospital noise still a problem? What’s being done?

This photo has been released into the public domain by its author, Tomasz Sienicki

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

This news story asserts that noise in hospitals is steadily increasing. In fact, the trend is actually the other way: for over a decade now, hospitals have been struggling to get this problem under control. And the Affordable Care Act is helping.

How? ACA includes something called the HCAHPS—patient-centered care survey that hospitals are required to send out to every patient within a few days of a hospital stay, and results of this survey are available to the public. The HCAHPS survey is a short one, about 20 questions, including one called the “noise-at-night question” that asks former patients whether their room quiet at night.

Guess what? That question gets the WORST response every time! That’s been an eye-opener for the people who run hospitals–their boards of directors–because before ACA and HCAHPS nobody really cared what patients thought. Now hospitals’ federal reimbursements are linked to their HCAHPS scores. So a big wake-up call went down from hospital board rooms to the clinical staffs—“fix the noise problems, we can’t afford negative patient reviews because they reduce our hospital’s profit margins!”

But what can they do to fix the noise problems? Lots. I’m proud to say that I lead a U.S. national group that has been working on the hospital noise problem since 2005–that’s 15 years–called the Healthcare Acoustics Project, an independent, all-volunteer community of professionals that develops national and international codes and standards for the health care industry. HAP published the first “comprehensive national criteria for noise control in American hospitals and healthcare facilities” in 2010, and we’ve been steadily improving those criteria ever since. Now they’re embedded in the building codes in most of the U.S. and administered by each state’s building code authorities.

So next time you or a loved one is hospitalized, take a close look and a careful listen to noise and privacy levels in their sleeping quarters. If it’s noisy, COMPLAIN LOUDLY and mention that you know about the HCAHPS survey.

We’re pretty certain you’ll get a response pretty quickly. Because patients now have an effective voice thanks to the patient-centered care movement!

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Healthcare Acoustics Project (HAP, a division of Quiet Communities Inc.), 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 and the American Institute of Architects. He is 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 publication “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.

Comments (2)

  1. S. H.

    It is true that hospitals are “no place for sick people.” I am a caregiver for a family member who has been hospitalized in New York City twice within the last year, and the surveys I received have not included questions about noise levels (at night or otherwise). This has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Also, it’s not only night noise that is the problem. During the day staff frequently carry on conversations in front of open patient doors with a coworker at the other end of the hall. And, if you’re in a room near the nurses’ station, the dialog can get so loud that you might feel like you’re missing out on a party. And, patients are often reluctant to complain for fear of retribution. This problem is also rampant in nursing & rehabilitation facilities. All staff need to be trained to use “indoor” voices. The more nurturing the environment, the faster a patient will heal.

    1. GMB (Post author)

      We agree. Sleep is essential to good health, so why can’t they allow patients to sleep when they are in the hospital? Once that’s tackled, let’s take on hospital food.


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