Sound and Noise in Healthcare FacilitiesEmma Becker
Researchers, architects, and interior designers consider a wide range of design challenges when designing healthcare facilities. They also need to adapt quickly to changing situations. Today’s most significant challenges are an aging population and the strain on the industry from the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, healthcare facilities continue to advance in many ways with the ultimate goal of improving patient outcomes.
Healthcare design typically focuses on durability and cleanliness. Yet, it also needs to create a comfortable environment for patients, visitors, and staff. One major factor designers and architects must consider when designing for these spaces is sound. Sound has a significant impact on both patient outcomes and employee satisfaction.
Why is noise in healthcare facilities a problem?
The World Health Organization recommends the level of background noise in hospitals by 35dB during the day and 20dB at night. However, research has shown that most healthcare facilities do not comply with this recommendation. Instead, peak noise levels exceed this recommended limit.
Why? Our 21st-century healthcare facilities have many sources of noise. Machinery, HVAC systems, pagers, phones, nurses’ stations, visitors, rolling equipment, and even lights contribute to a constant symphony of noise. These sounds might not seem like a big deal individually. Yet, they can lead to various problems, particularly elevated stress levels for patients, staff, and visitors. For patients, elevated noise levels make it challenging to rest and recover. For staff, noise leads to difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and stress. Poor acoustics and high noise levels make it hard for staff to convey information among themselves and between staff, patients, and caregivers.
How can architects and interior designers help?
Using evidence-based research, architects and interior designers can greatly reduce excess sound in healthcare facilities. In his Ted Talk Designing Healthcare with Sound in Mind, Julian Treasure, Chairman of The Sound Agency, suggests three ways to improve sound levels in healthcare: “improve acoustics, reduce noise, and install positive content.” By addressing these areas, designers and architects can improve sound levels in healthcare facilities, enhance patient and staff comfort and eliminate many negative impacts of excessive sound.
One of the biggest challenges to reducing noise in a healthcare facility is the number of hard materials and surfaces used. Hard surfaces are effective for cleanliness and durability; however, sound easily bounces off them and travels long distances, contributing to excessive noise levels. When possible, designers should specify softer materials that absorb sound, especially in places such as patient meeting areas and waiting rooms. Additionally, designers can incorporate sound-absorbing products such as ceiling tiles, carpeting, curtains, and acoustic panels.
Interior designers can also design patient rooms with a layout that reduces sound traveling around a space. When possible, single patient rooms are the best choice for noise reduction. Also, setting up rooms so each room alternates where the bed’s headboard is placed helps eliminate conversations being heard as easily by patients or individuals on the other side of the wall. This helps reduce noise and contributes to patient privacy, easing concerns about patient confidentiality.
Additionally, when rooms are first being built, dividing walls or products, such as KwickScreen, are better than curtains for limiting sound’s ability to travel. In some cases, depending on the healthcare facilities’ location, thicker or insulated glass panes on windows also limit the amount of sound bleeding in from outside. Besides patient rooms, designers can decentralize nurses’ stations. Moving these stations to slightly more private areas or designing buildings to place stations in separate alcoves alleviate sound from conversations, phones, and equipment.
Finally, though it seems counterintuitive, adding certain types of sound to healthcare spaces can have a positive effect. Introducing soothing music, white noise, pink noise, or nature sounds can reduce the stress noise causes. These sounds minimize stress and improve patient confidentiality by masking private conversations.
Some of these changes are easier to implement when a healthcare facility is being built or renovated. However, incorporating even a few of the above suggestions can make a big difference. When considering design choices in healthcare, stay current on the latest evidence-based research. Here are a few of the resources we referenced in this article. As always, keep in mind this industry is constantly changing, and further research is ongoing.
Designing with Sound in Mind – Ted Talk with Julian Treasure, Chairman of The Sound Agency
Sound Control for Improved Outcomes in Healthcare Settings – Anjali Joseph, Ph.D., Director of Research, The Center for Health Design and Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., Professor, Center for Health Systems and Design, Texas A&M University
Sound and Space: Acoustical design strategies for health care staff spaces – Sayali Wazalwar, Academy of Architecture for Health
Listen Up: Design Strategies to Quiet Healthcare Environments – Lisa D. Ellis, Healthcare Design
Understanding the Importance of Interior Design in the Healthcare Industry – Allen Brown, Amazing Architecture