Should acoustic standards be raised in healthcare environments?
In this article, John Newbury, senior product manager at British Gypsum, looks at the current challenges that face the market and whether the industry should be looking at raising acoustic standards in healthcare environments
Due to their nature, healthcare buildings have their own unique design needs regarding factors including hygiene, indoor temperature, and aesthetics.
Poor workplace acoustics have been implicated in increased rates of staff stress and burnout, which can lead to impaired productivity in healthcare workers and possible errors in treatment
With patients and staff both spending so much time in these spaces, they need an environment that makes them feel comfortable, while supporting patient care and worker wellbeing.
Not every healthcare facility, and not every space within a structure, has the same requirements, and this is especially true when it comes to acoustic performance.
Recognising this, in 2013 the Government updated its guidance on noise levels in hospitals in the Health Technical Memorandum (HTM) 08-01: Acoustics. Crucially, this divides the healthcare environment into clinical, public, and staff areas, which are further split according to room function, each with a detailed breakdown of recommended noise limits from both external and internal sources.
For example, in clinical areas, HTM 08-01 recommends an external sound level in wards of 40dB during daytime and, at night, 35dB — the average noise level on a quiet residential street. It also suggests noise from machinery should be no higher than 30dB. In operating theatres, it advises a threshold of 40dB for noise from within and outside the room.
In public spaces, such as waiting areas, it suggests a limit of 50dB — the equivalent of a normal conversation between two people — and for small meeting rooms, offices and other staff areas, it advises a maximum 40dB for external noise and 35dB from mechanical sources.
However, many hospital buildings have some way to go to meet these guidelines. A 2013 study of acoustics in five adult ICUs, for example, found that sound levels always exceeded 40dB and often reached as high as 85dB, potentially leading to negative repercussions for the health of building users.
The impact of poor acoustics on health is well attested. Sleep disturbance caused by noisy hospital wards, for example, has been found to disrupt central nervous system development in infants. In adults it has been linked with stress, hypertension and heart disease, as well as impaired immune function, increasing their vulnerability to infection and potentially slowing their recovery from surgery or illness.
High noise levels can also have an effect on the wellbeing of doctors and nurses working in a hospital. Poor workplace acoustics have been implicated in increased rates of staff stress and burnout, which can lead to impaired productivity in healthcare workers and possible errors in treatment as well. This can cause potential issues with staff retention — a particular challenge at the moment, due to growing pressures on NHS budgets — and, ultimately, affect the care given to patients.
With this research in mind, healthcare specifiers need to ensure the buildings in their care offer the acoustic performance required, not just to meet Government recommendations, but to provide a comfortable environment for the people using them as well.
Currently, when designing healthcare spaces, specifiers have a number of factors to take into account, not the least of which is hygiene. However, as studies show, to develop more-effective hospital buildings, it is imperative they use interior construction solutions that improve acoustic performance, in addition to offering cleanliness, and other benefits like enhanced thermal insulation and durability.
Specifiers should work with manufacturers from the very beginning of their project to find the right construction solutions for the individual needs of their healthcare facility
To support specifiers in achieving all these aims, the manufacturers of construction materials are increasingly adopting an evidence-based design approach to produce new solutions to tackle multiple real-world challenges simultaneously. Research into the effect of noise on human health, for example, has been crucial in the development of British Gypsum’s latest product range — Eurocoustics.
This ceiling tile range offers Class A sound absorption as well as A1 reaction to fire and 30 minutes’ fire resistance, all as standard. The range also features options that are wipeable, washable and anti-bacterial to support the deep cleaning required in healthcare facilities.
Choosing such construction materials that offer a single solution to a number of vital design goals can help specifiers to create an optimum environment for patient recovery and staff wellbeing, while also simplifying the supply chain and maximising installation efficiency.
There is a host of factors to bear in mind when designing healthcare buildings. However, as studies show, to go above and beyond in supporting the care received by patients, it is crucial that specifiers give the acoustics of their facilities greater consideration, in addition to issues of hygiene and durability.
To ensure they meet these acoustic and other design requirements, specifiers should work with manufacturers from the very beginning of their project to find the right construction solutions for the individual needs of their healthcare facility.