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The Power of Acoustics in Medical Facilities

Why is noise so prevalent in healthcare facilities? It’s a place of flat, hard surfaces and long hallways. In such an acoustically harsh environment it takes much longer for the noise to stop bouncing around. Think of a tennis ball. Throw it against a hard surface, and then throw it against a pillow. When the ball hits the hard surface it keeps bouncing around. When it hits a pillow, it drops. That’s like what happens to noise.

Hospitals and healthcare buildings are a significant challenge to acoustic consultants and designers. These buildings are typically a hive of activity and include a multitude of different spaces with a wide range of sensitivity and privacy requirements.  Each space may be used for a variety of activities that have differing sensitivity levels and generate varying levels of noise.

Design of efficient, effective hospitals must incorporate noise control as a critical primary consideration. The best test for design is whether building spaces allow people to thrive mentally, socially and physically. As a result, design expectations must be adjusted so that the optimism of occupants’ physical and mental well-beings is a priority for architects and building designers. Is this design model going to have a positive impact on patients’ health?

 

HOSPITALS – WHERE ACTIVITY AND SLEEP COLLIDE

Ward spaces pose additional challenges for a design team since sleeping activities are not restricted to the night time period. As such, there may be high levels of activity in wards or intensive care units that must be controlled to allow sleep in adjoining ward areas.  High noise levels in hospitals often occur due to staff activity and equipment that are outside the control of the design team.  Disrupted and/ or limited sleep has been demonstrated to have adverse impacts on several important health measures and outcomes including potential to increase blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, pain stress levels and inflammation.

Good acoustic design can:

  • Improve patient comfort, privacy and dignity
  • Assist in providing essential sleep patterns to aid the healing process
  • Improve staff comfort, privacy, efficiency and accuracy

Noise is a common complaint during hospital stays and, as a result more and more hospitals are aiming to increase patient satisfaction by implementing noise reduction strategies.

Not only does noise affect patients, but hospital staff can also be greatly impacted. Noise from medical equipment, voices, pagers and public address systems can distract caregivers, slowing down their pace of work or leading to errors.

However it may be difficult to control these noises and may therefore be beneficial to have higher background noise levels to assist in masking.

INFECTION CONTROL

A key consideration in healthcare facilities is infection control. Finishes which are smooth and impervious to moisture are preferred as they are easily cleaned.  These surfaces also need to be hard wearing and resistant to detergents and disinfectants to ensure they withstand regular cleaning.  Textured or inaccessible surfaces should also be avoided as these have the potential to accumulate dust.

These infection control requirements conflict with many regular acoustic mitigation methods that rely on porous finishes or exposed insulation blankets. Soft furnishing and carpet is not acceptable in most clinical areas, limiting reverberation control treatment to ceiling areas as this is typically the largest uninterrupted surface in a facility, and the most appropriate area in a hospital for acoustic treatments due to infection control regulations. It is imperative to optimize this space by using a good absorptive tile as patients and staff are unlikely to come into direct contact with this area. This is important for controlling noise generation in the space, improving speech intelligibility and even reducing noise intrusion.  Highly absorptive ceiling tiles should be implemented to achieve the highest acoustic benefit, particularly for neonatal intensive care units.

Absorptive wall panels should be hung, particularly on large vertical surfaces and in key reflective locations, such as corridors. If necessary, a thin antimicrobial or impervious film can be applied to absorptive materials in order to maintain sterility and washability without significantly affecting performance.

Alternative hard floor surfaces may require acoustic underlay to mitigate footfall impact noise.

Acoustic design strategies can alleviate the problems to encourage patient satisfaction and speed up recovery times.

SOUND VS. NOISE

It is imperative to identify the distinctions between sound and noise. Some sounds can be quite stimulating and uplifting, while noises are more distracting and disruptive.  Aim to achieve a balance that becomes a soothing background element, provoking a serene ambience.

Noise is unwanted sound, and in hospitals and clinics, architects and consultants should design spaces and specify products that reduce noise levels, but enhance those positive sounds that promote good health.

Look at your own experience in different environments; for example music is played in shopping centre car parks to relax you and set the tone as you walk in. Some aged care facilities feature gardens designed specifically with plants to attract birds, whose bright chirping drifts through the building and creates a cheerful atmosphere.  Going into a hospital to visit someone who is not well or having a major operation is not a happy feeling.  We are on edge and small things such as smells, alarms or the sound of someone being paged urgently spike a certain fear into us and tingle our senses in a bad way.

Good acoustic management also relies on a careful selection of products and materials that fit a space’s function and purpose to absorb noise, and bounce back the right sounds.

The natural appearance of timber has been proven to raise spirits and reduce stress making it a good material for healthcare projects. At the same time, it can be used to reflect and absorb sounds.

When we think of where we would like to rest and recuperate from illness or medical treatment, most of us visualize places that are tranquil. This is a stark contrast to the reality of a typical hospital where sounds of multiple monitors, beepers, buzzers, alarms, machines, paging systems, telephones and people’s voices dominate the environment. An alarm goes off, a monitor buzzes, a door opens and closes again abruptly, a cart rumbles past squeakily…all of this prior to one word being spoken or one person walking past the patients room.

The epidemic of noise in hospitals is one of the biggest complaints from patients and staff. Hospitals provide year round, round the clock residential and sleeping accommodations for patients, but in today’s high tech environment of health care, there is noise everywhere and patients are paying a price. Regardless of where the patient is, equipment dominates the hospital experience.

Noise needs to be managed!!

However, noise not only affects the patients, it affects the staff as well! Research is showing that a noisy environment causes emotional exhaustion and burnout among critical care nurses and noise is strongly related to increased stress and annoyance among nurses in general. Trying to work with so much noise going on around us obviously opens the door to increased errors.

With over 70 years’ experience in the industry, our team of Architectural Consultants and Engineers will work directly with you to find the best custom solution to meet your project requirements.

More than just products___________ finding the best solutions to meet your needs.

See Atkar’s acoustic solutions in action in the medical industry…click on the below images to view the full case studies…