Blaring alarms. Beeping machines. Loud pages over the intercom. Intrusive cellphone conversations in the hallway. Noise at all hours in virtually every American hospital is a huge problem for both patients seeking rest to recover and doctors and nurses who need to concentrate on care without distraction.

A Johns Hopkins study found that the average hospital hallway and patient room acoustic level measured at an ear-splitting 72 decibels during the day, and 60 decibels at night. This audible disturbance can lead to medical errors and short-term lapses in memory and concentration by staff. It can also inhibit healing in patients, raising their heart rates, respiration and blood pressure (not to mention their stress levels).

What's more, the Acoustical Society of America reports that bedside alarms beep as often as 133 times a day — often due to technical issues, not due to medical emergencies.

How can you fix this problem for your patients and staff? Hospital systems like the University of Michigan's are setting the standard for noise reduction practices that are easily adaptable for any facility. Consider these proactive and effective measures to turn down the volume at your institution:

  • Keep an eye on your equipment maintenance. Establish an effective and consistent system for checking alarm batteries on a regular basis (a huge reason for noisy bedside activation that isn't indicative of a medical issue). Also, schedule maintenance of all other technical equipment to avoid unnecessarily loud operational sound.
  • Keep patients' doors closed whenever possible. It's a no-brainer, and it works.
  • Encourage your staff to wear soft-soled footwear on a daily basis.
  • Establish quiet hours on each patient floor, as early as possible each evening to ensure quality rest.
  • Offer ear buds to patients to use during noisier daytime hours and/or a white noise TV channel.
  • Ask your staff to set their pagers and phones to vibrate whenever possible.
  • Also, when appropriate, ask your staff to use those pagers and phones as an alternative call system to cut back on intercom use.
  • Designate specific areas for cellphone use in hospital units, preferably in the waiting room areas. If visitors or patients use cellphones in patient rooms, post signs asking for low volume conversation, as to not disturb others.
  • Don't schedule floor-washing the halls for late at night. This a surprising (and loud) culprit when it comes to waking patients.
  • Looking at the installation of sound-absorbing, anti-bacterial sound buffering panels in the walls and ceiling of patient rooms. An interesting study shows their benefit.

All in all, the good news is that there are many solutions to noise pollution problems. With a little effort, you can provide everyone in your facility the quiet, and comfort they need and deserve.