Maintaining A Healing Tone With Hospital Upgrades 

Acoustics in Digital Hospitals  |  October 6, 2023

When contemplating technology upgrades in a hospital, it’s essential to consider the impact on internal noise levels that the new tech may introduce. With the healthcare environment, another major factor is privacy and Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) concerns. BrightTree Studios’ Acoustical Consultant, Josh Thede, PE, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP says, “When adding another layer of technology on top of everything else in a hospital, we want to make sure these details are reviewed and correct for sound isolation. Even cutting a hole in a wall can decrease the Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating by half, making it twice as loud.”  

With the increasing availability of telehealth services from various providers, it’s crucial to have properly sound-proofed spaces for conducting these calls. Privacy is incredibly important in healthcare. With the speed that telehealth was implemented throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the location where providers were taking these calls fell to the wayside. Thede notes, “Getting the diagnosis of what your doctor says is so critical. We don’t want doctors to have communication issues of mis-prescribing or misdiagnosing on the patient’s behalf due to the sound in the room.” 

Another issue with the location of the telehealth phone calls, or just patient room acoustics in general revolves around HIPAA regulations. HIPPA privacy standards apply to all healthcare locations, new construction, and renovations. Healthcare providers are required to provide privacy for patient health information. While HIPPA does not give specific regulations for measuring acoustical privacy, rooms where confidential information is spoken should be equipped with the best sound absorption. Appropriate partition placement, room finish specification, and sound masking system selection can be used to keep a patient’s health information from being heard by others.

Alongside keeping private conversations from leaking out of the designated telehealth space, it is also important to consider the external noises that may be coming into the room. Ensuring that the provider and patient can focus during calls is incredibly important. The noise from HVAC systems, medical machines, or people in the waiting room can deflect that concentration. Being mindful of external noise is important for in-person care as well. Extraneous noise can cause extra stress to patients who are trying to heal. 

“Anything we can do to help nurses and healthcare workers right now is at the top of mind.”

Thede mentions, “When adding more technology in a building, there’s more rack rooms and even the technology itself has fan noise, requires more cooling, which adds more electrical loads to a room, more air conditioning units, which add more transformers near patient rooms – all of this adds additional noise to the patient.”

Working with the IT & telecom team, acoustics can help streamline the nurse call process. As it stands, most healthcare facilities have a specific sound that alerts nurses when a patient needs their assistance. Shifting to a video-centered system for smaller patient issues can mitigate the noise in a hospital wing and use those sounds for immediate emergencies only. Thede says, “Anything we can do to help nurses and healthcare workers right now is at the top of mind.”

If we look to facilities that haven’t been built yet, designers are able to plan for the required STC rating by including an acoustician in the design process from the beginning. These plans could entail placing quiet rooms far from spaces where frequent loud noises occur or choosing the best building materials for the desired sound levels.

“It’s definitely possible to have this technology and no issues—it’s what we do. We push the envelope on design.” 

It is also key to keep sound vibration in mind when designing a space. In addition to loudness, some of the necessary hospital machinery creates movement that could disturb operations and other technical care. Room placement for MRI, CAT scans, and procedural machines is vital in building planning.

“To be as innovative as possible and provide the best solutions, we want to be in from the very conceptual design,” Thede says.

“Not considering space planning can start to introduce challenges from areas that aren’t necessarily in the scope boundaries of the project but could still dramatically affect what the end user experiences. It’s definitely possible to have this technology and no issues—it’s what we do. We push the envelope on design.” 

Considering building acoustics is a process that can enhance the healthcare experience when done correctly. It is much easier to plan and troubleshoot before a space has been constructed. rather than building out a whole facility. From ensuring privacy, to keeping the healing environment free from distractions, building acoustics in a hospital experience should be a priority. In the ever-evolving landscape of healthcare technology, acoustics remains a critical factor in shaping the hospital experience.

Interested in learning more about our health design considerations? Check out our previous blog about digital hospitals.

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