HCD Virtual: Strategies For Improving Acoustics In Healthcare Settings

The importance of noise control in inpatient units was a focus at HCD Virtual, during the session, “Sensory Design: Mastering Acoustics In Healthcare Environments.” John Czarnecki, deputy director and senior vice president at IIDA, moderated the discussion with Amy Mays, interior design practice leader at HDR, Ana Pinto-Alexander, director of health interiors and principal at HKS, and Jo Solet, assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The panel started with an overview of design elements that contribute to creating a space that evokes calm and comfort. Well-known ideas include providing a mix of natural and artificial lighting and biophilic elements, such as textures and colors, while less recognized is the importance of acoustics, according to Pinto-Alexander, which can create an emotional and mental strain as well as lead to poor quality of sleep.

Mays says planning and materiality are big drivers in trying to achieve a balance in acoustics and that these solutions should be considered in a layered approach. “For example, placing an icemaker in an offstage area rather than in an onstage area not only helps control use but also keeps noise away from the patient,” she said. “Or consider the details of the type paper towel dispenser that’s used—the folded style dispensers are quieter than the rolled dispenser.”

Regarding materials, the speakers noted that many of the non-porous materials like quartz and wall protection that are required in healthcare environments to support infection control measures can have a negative impact on acoustics. “These types of materials don’t have sound absorption attributes,” Pinto-Alexander said.

Specifying products like rubber flooring or ceiling tiles with the highest NRC available can help address these issues, while architectural solutions include angling or curving walls or bulk heads to help with diffuse reverberation, she said.

Another design strategy is having the right sound balance of “background” sound, as complete quiet makes voices more audible and limits speech privacy, Solet said. “Wherever possible, arousing, disruptive sounds should be identified and modified, or even eliminated. At times improvement is as simple as lubricating the wheels on a noisy rolling cart. Television noise is a frequent complaint especially in the remaining double rooms, but sometimes even from across the hall. There has been discussion of wireless headphones. Also, there are times when simply closing the door can make an enormous difference, weighing again the level of need for surveillance.”

Solet recently conducted research that showed that intermittent sounds such as a printer, ice maker, and phone signals are especially alerting. When possible, she suggested that equipment should be segregated and/or surrounded by sound-absorbing materials. To address sounds originating from outside the hospital building, she said careful planning needs to be done in locating ambulance bays and helicopter pads to protect patients.

“Including attention to acoustics in the healthcare environment enhances patient sleep, contributing to faster recovery, and shorter length of stay, and protects speech privacy while lowering caretaker work stress,” Solet said.

Pinto-Alexander agreed. “A good night’s sleep greatly contributes to the healing process. Having a quiet environment is essential to have quality of sleep,” she said.

Missed HCD Virtual? Don’t worry. Registration is still open, and all sessions will be available on demand through the end of the year. Visit HCDvirtual.com for more information.

Tracey Walker is managing editor of Healthcare Design. She can be reached at tracey.walker@emeraldx.com.

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