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News archive - November 2016

A sound investment

A sound investment

Hospitals and care homes are busy environments, and with such high levels of activity comes noise - and lots of it.

But, while noise is a necessary and common part of life in any setting; within clinical or care spaces it can have a huge effect on people who are already vulnerable.

Andrea Harman, concept developer for healthcare at Saint Gobain Ecophon, explains: “A lot of research has gone into how our bodies react to noise.

“We are all affected and we all have a physiological reaction to noise. It’s the fight-or-flight response, and our ears are often the first sign we get of danger.”

In health and social care environments people are often stressed and vulnerable, so there is an even-more-extreme response to noise. In particular, children, people with mental health conditions, and those with dementia can be very sensitive to sound. Those speaking a second language - that’s both patients and staff - also need a good acoustic environment to help them interact.

Research has also shown links between sleep and recovery, so if patients are treated in a good acoustic environment, they sleep better and get better more quickly.

This all adds up to a very-real need to enhance acoustics within these very-specialist settings.

Harman said: “We look at three aspects when trying to address acoustic performance - it’s about the people using the space, the activity taking place, and the room itself.

“While you can sometimes change activity and the way people behave, it’s within the room itself that you can most easily make a change.”

She added: “Hospitals are full of hard surfaces, so sound bounces around. By changing some of these surfaces, you can absorb sound and help to improve the overall environment.”

There are various surface materials available, including acoustic wall panels, which are used regularly in care settings, where they can be printed with art to aid with reminiscence or wayfinding.

However, in hospitals, particularly in the UK, concern over the spread of infection means that surface-mounted wall panels are often not used, particularly in clinical and ward areas, where noise control is especially important.

Instead, the most-common approach is to fit sound-absorbent ceiling panels. A ‘Class A’ product - the highest acoustic rating available - will help to absorb between 80-100% of the sound that hits them. A patient, visitor of member of staff will be able to hear the person speaking directly to them, but the ceiling panels will absorb any echo, enabling localised speech clarity.

“Key in hospitals is to stop sound from travelling,” said Harman. “For example, you can often hear corridor noise in patient wards, which can be very disturbing.”

While it is often difficult for suppliers and manufacturers to get permission to carry out acoustic research in active hospital settings, Saint Gobain Ecophon did embark on a study at City Hospital Sandwell in the West Midlands.

Harman said: “As part of the research we changed only the ceiling panels in a corridor to an acoustic material. We were not allowed to affect the acoustics on the ward itself as the heating and cooling went through the ceiling.

“The impact, though, was still significant. The most-surprising thing was that the level of noise around the nursing station, which was based in the corridor, was reduced significantly - by 10db. This was largely due to behaviour change. When you are in a quieter environment, you tend to be quieter. The results really surprised the acoustician.”

This growing research is having an impact on future designs, with manufacturers, including Saint Gobain Ecophon, looking at new ways to enhance acoustics.

Harman said: “We are doing a lot of research at the moment on the noise environment for both staff and patients and working on wall panel solutions that help overcome concerns about infection control.

“Another area that is driving innovation is in mental health, this includes how sound can be used in a positive way, in order to provide a more-calming environment. Not all noise is bad!

“This is an exciting area and one which is garnering more interest from the health and social care sector.”

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