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Replacing ‘horrible beeps’ in hospitals can improve patient, clinician experience: McMaster researcher

Click to play video: 'Redesigning medical sounds could improve health outcomes: study'
Redesigning medical sounds could improve health outcomes: study
WATCH ABOVE: Researchers are exploring ways to alleviate some of the strain on health-care staff and patients posed by the sounds of alarms and monitors. Caryn Lieberman reports – Feb 27, 2023

Between the beeping of medical devices, opening and closing of doors, ringing of telephones, rolling of meal carts and constant calls on loudspeakers, hospitals are anything but quiet.

“It’s a cacophonous amount of noise,” said Dr. Joseph Schlesinger, an associate professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “The alarms are loud, they’re annoying. They don’t tell us what’s wrong.”

Schlesinger is the co-author of a new study out of McMaster University in Hamilton suggesting changing the sounds of medical devices can improve the quality of health-care delivery.

“We get desensitized, we get burnt out from it, and then the patients, it interrupts their sleep, they get stressed hearing alarms. Sleep deprivation can lead to ICU delirium and long-term cognitive impairment. So you have these really deleterious outcomes both for patients, families and clinicians,” he said.

In the study, published in the British Journal of Anesthesia, researchers compared standard flat beeps with alarm tones that mimic musical notes.

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“Medical devices in hospitals make sounds to communicate with doctors and tell them important information about patients. Unfortunately, for historical reasons, they’ve chosen to use really, really terrible sounds. And so ICUs and operating rooms all over the world are flooded with these horrible beeps and boops,” said Michael Schutz, the study’s co-author and professor of music cognition and percussion at McMaster.

“What we’re doing is just tweaking the sounds that they can convey just as much or maybe even more useful information, but they don’t sound so awful.”

Schutz referred to data released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicating that issues with hospital alarms in the United States had contributed to more than 500 deaths between 2005 and 2008.

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“We’re not going to make the ICU sound like the Toronto Symphony. That’s not the goal here,” said Schutz. “The idea is by making the sounds less aversive, if we can do that in a way that communicates the same amount of information and is just as easy to hear, then we’ve actually done something to help public health that has really minimal cost and no side effects.”

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Liam Foley, a human factors specialist in St. John’s, N.L., who took part in the research as part of his master’s of psychology, said it’s about creating a “more tranquil environment” rather than feeling like patients are in a “construction zone.”

“We essentially developed these experiments, ran the analysis, did the statistics and what we found is that we don’t need the status quo tones, they’re actually worse from detectability, and these new tones can increase detectability, they don’t interfere with speech comprehension and best of all, they’re less annoying,” explained Foley.

For Schlesinger, striking the right note with music-inspired alerts means he can focus more on the sounds of healing.

“We would be able to do a better job. We could have a faster response, more accurate response. Attention is a finite, fluid attribute that we have, so we could then be able to shift that without burning out and habituating towards the soundscape. So we would just do a better job as clinicians,” he said.

That is music to patients’ ears.

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