How Noise Can Cost Your Hospital

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media , August 26, 2008

One of the most common and effective methods I've heard of is replacing the overhead intercom system with wireless communication badges, which can page staff anywhere in the hospital. At the hospital I mentioned above, the staff reported improvements in the quality and ease of communication after they started using the badges and patient satisfaction increased to 93%.

Some hospitals have begun to experiment with technology that is designed to mask sound by actually introducing noise into the environment. Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville installed such a system after patient satisfaction surveys showed that their lowest score was "noise in and around the room."

Sound masking works by covering a distracting sound with a more soothing or less intrusive sound. A series of speakers installed in the ceiling distributes electronically generated background sound that serves to cover or reduce the impact of noise spikes. The result is that noises and conversations are nearly impossible to hear or comprehend. About four months after installing the soundmasking technology, Saint Thomas' follow-up survey showed a 33% increase in patient satisfaction.

If studies suggesting that a noisy environment slows healing aren't enough to make a hospital quiet down, perhaps being publicly outed will. In March the federal government's Hospital Compare site began posting patient satisfaction scores for individual hospitals. Among the items listed: "Percent of patients who reported that the area around their room was always quiet at night" and "cleanliness and quietness of hospital environment." And then there's the money factor. Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are now tied to those patient satisfaction surveys because hospitals that fail to report the required quality measures may receive an annual payment update that is reduced by 2%, which could make your patient's sleepless stay an expensive stay.

Kathryn Mackenzie is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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