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Sound level around seriously ill patients "like a busy road"

17 September 2012 University of Gothenburg

Seriously ill patients in intensive care units are being cared for in environments with sound levels more than 20 dB higher than the WHO’s recommendations. This is shown by a study carried out in partnership between the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and the University of Borås, Sweden.

In the study, the researchers registered sound levels around 13 seriously ill patients cared for in the intensive care unit at Södra Älvsborg Hospital over a 24-hour period. The study shows that the sound levels around seriously ill patients were on average between 51 and 55 dB. This is comparable with a busy road.

For the greater part of the 24 hours, between 70 and 90 per cent of the time, the sound level was above 55 dB – in addition, there were a number of short sound bursts above 100 dB.

When the patients were interviewed about their experiences of the surrounding sounds, they recalled both positive and negative experiences. Positive experiences included, for example, the sound of the staff talking quietly between themselves or providing information on ongoing treatment.

"Sounds perceived as frightening were uncontrollable sounds from, for example, alarms, and sounds from seriously ill fellow patients, and treatments and examinations. One patient also described how the sounds around him had entered into his dreams and hallucinations,"says Lotta Johansson, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, who led the study. 

The sound levels found by the study are slightly lower than those measured by previous studies, but still significantly higher than the 30 dB recommended by the WHO for patient rooms in hospitals.

 “The interesting thing is that what the patients considered most disturbing was unknown and uncontrollable sounds rather than the generally high sound level. This shows that we must take further measures to create healing care environments with better conditions for sleep and recovery for seriously ill patients,” explains Lotta Johansson.

The study “The sound environment in an ICU patient room – A content analysis of sound levels and patient experiences” was published in the journal Intensive and Critical Care Nursing. It is a preliminary study for a larger project in which the researchers will study in more depth and from a longer perspective how the physical environment affects seriously ill patients.

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