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In the Clubhouse: The Alarms in Hospitals are Killing Us - Part 2
Episode 14921st September 2022 • Audio Branding • Jodi Krangle
00:00:00 00:30:55

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“We go through all these things and talk about all these problems with annoying sounds and how important it is for the bellows sounds to be informative. And all this just hearkens back to the point where the essential goal here of these so-called auditory ‘alarms’ isn't to alarm, it's to notify. And I think if we can use better sounds like that, whether it's those bellow sounds or some of the ones Judy came up with, for the new standards, we can accomplish the same goal, which is communication and notification without the annoyance.” -- Professor Michael Schutz


This episode continues our Clubhouse discussion as Professor Michael Schutz, Professor Judy Edworthy, Dr. Elif Özcan, and Dr. Joseph Schlesinger lead a variety of questions and comments about medical alarms, hospital soundscapes, and creating a more healing auditory environment.

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No Cause for Alarm

The second half of the discussion starts with a look at alarms, and whether we might be using the wrong word to describe them. “We call them ‘alarms,’” Mike notes, “but for the most part I don't think they’re actually intended to be alarming.” The panelists take a question from Andrea about whether industry rating systems, such as the UK-based Quiet Mark certification, might help prompt a change, and Judy talks about how deep our expectations about the way hospitals are supposed to sound can run. “It’s completely embedded in our culture,” she says, “this whole idea that pieces of equipment have to make a lot of noise and alarms have to be really loud and they have to sound a certain way.”


Breaking the Silence

We continue with a talk about how modern, silent equipment like electric hospital ventilators now use digital sound effects, such as the classic "bellows" sound of a mechanical respirator, to help reassure users.  As Judy explains, "we expect things to make a noise, and we have very particular expectations about alarms.” We also look at how individual tendencies can influence the perception of sound, and at striking the right balance between different needs. “We want people to get the most out of the work,” Dr. Özcan says, “and that they are also happy. Maybe there is some room for that as well.”


Soundscapes of the Future

As the discussion comes to a close, we take a question from Max about associating alarms with their function, and our panelists reveal that this is precisely one of the directions their research has taken. “Indeed,” answers Judy, “the new sound in the standard for the ventilation sound is the breathing sound with some adaptation and the oxygen sound is a bubbling sound.” “Not only have we done that,” Dr. Schlesinger adds, “but we’ve shown benefit.” We talk about what grown-up hospitals can learn from the ambient sound design of children's hospitals, and about the importance of considering every auditory perspective, not just the staff who work there every day. “I think it’s very interesting to look at soundscapes of the future, at hospitals,” Dr. Özcan says, “from the patient’s perspective too.”


Episode Summary

  • The purpose of medical alerts and whether they’re really alarms
  • How pop culture helped establish our idea of the hospital "soundtrack"
  • Silent devices and creating the sounds that we expect to hear
  • Making hospitals look and sound more like a healing environment

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