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Alarms in hospitals – a chaotic sound environment

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The use of alarms in hospitals was discussed intensively during the two days session “Healthcare Acoustics & Speech Privacy“.

A study presented by S. Okcu, College of Architecture, GaTech, states that a patient in an ICU can be surrounded by up to 33 different alarms from medical equipment. Not only are the alarms disturbing to the patients, they also make the task for the staff to detect and analyse them more demanding.

20060427_busch%5B1%5D.jpg Ilene Bush-Vishniac
“The alarms are of utmost importance, but do we really need all these alarms?” This is a question asked by Dr. Busch-Vishniac, MacMaster University (formerly from Johns Hopkins University) who was one of the presenters at the conference. And the question is relevant; in nine out of ten times no action is taken when an alarm goes off, except for turning the alarm off.

Alarms are a help to secure patient safety, but can also be a risk to patient safety. The sound level caused by the alarms can make it difficult to the staff to hear patients calling for help or notice abnormal patient bodily sounds.
Another participant at the conference, K. Kondylas, Neva Associates, added her thoughts about alarms in hospitals. She is studying noise in hospitals and has noticed that some medical technical equipment is designed to emit sound just to indicate that the equipment is working. Is it really necessary to add unnecessary noise to an environment that is already filled with disturbing sounds?
A good acoustic environment is important to support the staff in detecting and analysing the alarms and to notice help calls from patients. It is also essential that equipment sound is taken into consideration and that the hospitals try to avoid unnecessary alarms and to use equipment where the sound can be controlled.
To secure patient safety, two critical important aspects are:
– To be able to identify what the sound is. Is it an emergency situation and what action is to be taken?
– To be able to identify where the sound is. What room does the alarm come from and which patient needs help?

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