The top complaint of patients in hospital is noise, but some Canadian hospitals are finding ways to keep the din down.  
 
Acoustic expert Ilene Busch-Vishniac has tackled noise problems at hospitals in her research. 
 
"It is the number 1 complaint of patients," said Busch-Vishniac, who is now president of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. "Noise has been steadily increasing in the hospital environment."

Busch-Vishniac's research shows the trend is the same at hospitals all over the world.  

When Leanne Orchard went to a Vancouver-area hospital last year after having an allergic reaction to an antibiotic her dentist prescribed, she ended up in an overflow area for eight days surrounded by people vomiting, coughing and moaning in pain. 

Cheryl Aubertin and sound ear

Nurse Cheryl Aubertin talks about the benefits of displaying 'sound ears' to remind everyone to keep it down for the infants healing in the neonatal unit at the Ottawa hospital where she works. (CBC)

"I wouldn't mince words to say it's like being in hell," Orchard recalled.  

"They gave me earplugs and drugged me up with heavy sleeping pills in order to get some sleep at night. And even then it sometimes didn't work." 

Benefits of quieter hospitals 
 
A 2009 study by researchers at Harvard University in Boston suggested that small modifications in hospital routines, such as vital sign checks and routine medication administration, can reduce sedative use in hospital patients struggling to sleep. 
 
Electronic alerts, staff conversations and voice paging were among the most disruptive noises, a 2012 study found.
 

When you're ill, you need to sleep in a calm and secure environment, Orchard said. But she found recovering in the cordoned off area stressful. 
 
In contrast, since Woodstock Hospital in southwestern Ontario opened a new facility in 2011, the community hospital has billed itself as a "place of respite." Along with environmental and energy efficiency, noise was a consideration in the design, including: 

  • Smaller nursing stations staffed by fewer nurses who are found closer to patients' rooms. 
  • 70 per cent of the rooms are private. 
  • Ceilings have sound-absorbing tiles. 
  • Overhead loudspeakers were moved to the hallways instead of over patients' beds. 
  • Nurses uses wireless phones set on vibrate to communicate, reducing pages on loudspeakers.  
  • High-traffic areas like the X-ray and CT scan departments now have their own elevators.  

At the previous location, patients complained of noise from people walking about, recalled nurse Jackie MacKenzie, a director of patient care in acute care wings. 

"This is very conducive to a restful stay in hospital given the obvious the interruptions of providing medications and providing treatments," MacKenzie said. 

The biggest issue with hospital noise is talking, not the beeping monitors or rattling carts, Busch-Vishniac said. 
 
That's why at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, four "sound ears" have been installed in the neonatal intensive care unit for premature and sick infants.
 
Babies and their developing nervous systems are more sensitive to noise than adults, said Cheryl Aubertin, a neonatal nurse at CHEO. 
 
Each sound ear displays dots in the shape of an ear that change from green to yellow to red as noise levels increase above a set level. 
 
"It gives a visual effect [cue] for staff who are coming into the rooms," said Aubertin. "Is it too loud? Should I keep the noise down?"  
 
Nurses no longer need to remind visitors to hush; signs do it for them.  
 
"There's a noticeable difference in the sound in the unit. It's a little bit more peaceful, it's a calmer environment," Aubertin said.  

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy and Marijka Hurko