Noisy hospital wards are preventing recovery with the very sickest patients disturbed every six minutes by sounds as a loud as a pneumatic drill, Oxford University has warned.
While television dramas represent intensive care units as places with dimmed lights, hushed voices and softly beeping machines, the reality is that noise levels are more like a busy restaurant.
Researchers at Oxford warned that some of the sickest patients are forced to wear ear-plugs and eye masks to get any sleep at all.
Professor Duncan Young, from Oxford’s Kadoorie Centre for Critical Care Research and Education, said: “High levels of noise make it harder to sleep, sleep deprivation leads to confusion and confusion is thought to complicate the healing process and slow recovery.
“Yet our research found that during the day, noise levels in an intensive care units are equivalent to those of a busy restaurant.
“While things are quieter at night, we still found that sounds louder than 85 decibels – around the level of a road drill – were happening up to 16 times an hour.”
The team’s study, published in the Critical Care journal, saw them monitor five intensive care units near Oxford to see whether they complied with recommended noise levels.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the average hospital sound levels should not exceed 35 decibels (dB), with a maximum of 40 dB overnight.
But the researchers found average sound levels always exceeded a perceived loudness of 45 dBA.
They wrote: “On average, there were approximately 25 minutes of every hour during the day when peak levels above 85 dBA occurred.
“Peak levels above 85 dBA occurred less frequently overnight but a patient can still expect to be disturbed at least once every 7 to 16 minutes of every hour between 10pm and 7am.”
The team have worked to come up with a series of noise-reducing methods including replacing metal bins with plastic ones that close quietly and creating guidelines about volume settings on equipment.
They are also looking at developing a “noise display” so staff can actually see noise levels on the wards as well as training staff to take more care so they do not needlessly disturb patients.
Based on patients’ suggestions, staff can also experience the intensive care unit from the patient perspective.
Wearing glasses that simulate the poor vision common in many patients treated in the ICU, they hear a soundtrack of common sounds in the unit while people move around the bed, as staff would do during routine nursing activities.
Professor Young said: ‘The experience helps staff understand things from the patient’s point of view, and most of those who have been through the training have said that they will change the way they work.
‘The next stage is to develop a noise display, so staff can see and better manage the noise level in the unit. Taken together, we hope all these activities will make intensive care a better environment for patients.’