Page last updated at 02:26 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Hospital wards break world health 'noise limits'

By Michelle Roberts
Health reporter, BBC News

hospital ward
Busy wards can be as loud as a lawnmower

Hospital wards across the NHS are breaking recommended noise limits, disturbing patients' sleep, well-being and recovery, experts say.

Two separate studies found the din of chattering visitors and loud mobile phones pushed noise levels well over recommended limits.

The World Health Organization says patients should not be exposed to noise above 35 decibels or a loud whisper.

But the UK researchers frequently recorded levels of 60dB to 90bB.

Researchers at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, found noise levels on an average general medical ward exceeded 60dB most of the time, even at night.

Mobile phones came up time and again as an issue
Researcher Dr Anna Hutchings

At the Newcastle teaching hospital, nurses recorded levels averaging in the mid-40s and peaking at nearly 100dB - as loud as a lawnmower.

Lead author Annette Richardson, a nurse consultant in critical care at Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Hospitals can be very noisy places.

"Dropping a stainless steel bowl creates 108 dBs, which is more than the 100 dBs from a nearby car horn or chainsaw."

Ringtones and relatives

But it was mobile phones that were the real bugbear, as well as noisy visitors.

Both research teams looked at whether adopting simple measures could reduce noise levels.

It is bad enough when you are recovering from an illness in hospital. You at least expect some privacy and quiet
Michael Summers of the Patients Association

They asked staff to make a number of changes, including wearing soft soled shoes, switching mobile phones on to vibrate rather than ring and turning alarms on to "night mode" from the evening until the morning.

Quiet closing bins were also deployed and staff were encouraged to restrict visitors to designated times and keep their own noise to a minimum when possible.

These measures in Newcastle reduced peak noise levels by around 20%, bringing them well below the 80dB threshold at which hearing can be damaged over time, the Journal of Clinical Nursing reports.

And in Taunton, the time that noise levels breached 60dB at night fell from 75% to 59%.

For a good night's sleep, background sound level should not exceed 30dB and individual noise events should not exceed 45dB
Ideally, patients should not be exposed to noise above 35dB
Prolonged exposure to sounds over 80 dB can damage hearing
Raising/lowering bed rail = 90dB, as loud as a lawnmower
Opening a packet of rubber gloves = 86dB, equivalent to shouting
Dropping rubbish in a bin = 53-82dB, as loud as a busy street

Patients also said they felt more rested and had better quality sleep.

Michael Summers of the Patients Association said: "It is bad enough when you are recovering from an illness in hospital. You at least expect some privacy and quiet.

"If everyone made a concerted effort - that applies to patients and staff - it could reduce noise levels and make wards more peaceful places."

He said ward managers should look at which simple measures could be taken to limit unnecessary noise.

Dr Anna Hutchings led the Taunton research which will soon be presented at a British Thoracic Society meeting.

She said hospitals might think about introducing quiet zones, similar to those found on trains, and putting up posters to remind people to switch their mobiles to quiet settings.

"Mobile phones came up time and again as an issue.

"I don't think we could ask people not to bring them into hospitals, but we could think about how and where they are used."

Data from health regulator the Care Quality Commission show over the past few years nearly 40% of patients have been concerned about noise at night from other patients and around 20% from staff.

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