by Greg Coudriet, CTS, INCE, LEED AP BD+C, Principal Consultant, The Sextant Group

The keynote at the most recent Healthcare Facilities Symposium and Expo in Chicago was singularly thought-provoking. Massachusetts General’s Chief Experience Officer Rick Evans, a CXO in charge of the entire patient experience across an entire healthcare system, focused virtually his entire presentation on the importance of controlling noise in hospitals.

While most healthcare providers would prefer to focus on patient outcomes rather than “customer satisfaction”, Evans noted the two are inexorably linked. While many incorrectly assume that patient satisfaction means hospitals need to provide 5-star accommodations, it really means that patients should feel satisfied that their medical needs have been met. Rick stressed that the patient only has one experience and if any portion of it is bad, for instance noise, they’re likely to report a negative experience.

As an acoustic consultant, it’s my job to help the owner manage that patient experience, and noise (often the #1 complaint) can dramatically impact an individual’s perception of spaces and experiences, even affecting their reaction to other environmental factors. With healthcare funding becoming increasingly tied to patient HCAHPS surveys and the proliferation of online customer rating sites such as Vitals, HealthGrades, and ZocDoc, the patient experience is becoming a top priority for healthcare providers.

For an institution the size of Mass General, the financial impact can be staggering – and in fact, that’s the mission of the CXO. Yet, managing the acoustic environment, for the least cost and minimal disruption to critical healthcare functions, is rarely straight-forward. It requires careful coordination between owners, architects, and specialty consultants. The FGI Guidelines provide a great starting point, but each facility presents unique challenges and the goals set out in the design guidelines can only be address using project-specific solutions.

The biggest noise issues? First, two-occupant patient rooms were a non-starter, which is why Mass General now only builds single-patient rooms. There simply was no way to provide privacy and quiet with a fabric curtain. Second, that unnecessary medical alarms can make a patient floor sound like a Las Vegas casino. Third, that day-to-day chatter among hospital staff can be very disruptive. At best it disturbs patients – at worst, the patient may overhear information that causes them personal stress.

One of their most effective approaches to noise control was to designate quiet hours on patient floors and train staff to understand the importance of maintaining that environment. This is another great conclusion. Attempts to solve noise issues though architectural design will simply fall flat if the occupants aren’t on board.

In addition to these, healthcare owners face several other acoustic concerns, including

  • Environments that should be quiet and confidential, but where patients can clearly hear physicians instructions and discuss private medical information
  • Speech intelligibility for overhead paging systems
  • Vibration impacting operating rooms and imaging equipment
  • Community noise generated by hospitals, including ambulances and helipads
  • Environmental noise impacting the interior of hospitals, such as nearby roadways, rail lines, and airports
  • Construction noise during renovations

Free advice from Rick to architects: when designing healthcare facilities, take customer experience initiatives to his counterparts, because they may hold the authority to make those design elements a priority.

Invaluable advice when there may not be the will, or the budget, to address critical noise issues.

Rick Evans recently became Senior Vice President and Chief Experience Officer at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.