University of Iowa hospital looking to 'hush' the noise

'The best way to support the healing process is to have a quiet environment'

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IOWA CITY — From hallway chatter and cellphone chimes to beeping equipment and carts rattling by, hospitals can be noisy places, making it hard for patients to get the rest they need to recover.

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics — which has 732 beds and annually admits more than 33,000 people for inpatient care, along with 12,000 employees, students, and volunteers coordinating care on any given day — is especially at risk in the noise department.

That’s why the state’s largest hospital this week launched a “quiet initiative” called “Hush” — or “Help Us Support Healing.” The campaign aims to bring down noise levels through public awareness, new tools for patients and their families, equipment upgrades, and staff training, said Emily Wynn, interim director of clinical functions for the hospital’s medical-surgical division.

“This is the best thing for the patient and promoting rest and relaxation,” Wynn said. “The best way to support the healing process is to have a quiet environment.”

In addition to the common-sense reason that rest is important in healing and recovery and rest is easiest in quieter environments, Wynn said administrators also ask for noise-related feedback on patient-satisfaction surveys.

“And this is an area we have to improve,” she said.

According to the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, a national survey that polls patients about their experiences, just 45 percent of UIHC patients reported the area around their room as “always” quiet at night — far below the state average of 66 percent and national average of 62 percent.

The UI hospitals, which earned three out of five stars for overall patient satisfaction on the evaluation, reported its lowest marks in the noise category.

“We have an opportunity for improvement,” Wynn said.

Administrators launched their look at improving noise levels in the fall by forming a “quiet initiative work group” involving representatives from the hospital’s environmental and guest services, patient experience, food and nutrition, physical therapy, marketing and communications departments. Nearly every inpatient unit also was involved, as those spaces are the primary target for this initial stage of the campaign, Wynn said.

Among the strategies the group devised, which officially went into effect Tuesday, are standardized quiet times throughout the hospital. The new quiet times will occur daily from 12:30 to 2 p.m., during which staff will dim unit lights, reduce patient stimuli, and conduct conversations in softer tones — making sure others do the same.

New “quiet initiative” posters also will go up across inpatient units, featuring staff from each unit in hopes of making the signage more relevant to patients, Wynn said.

“We hope they will catch people’s eye a little,” she said. “Like, that’s your nurse on the wall.”

The initiative gives patients and guests access to new relaxation tools, including sleep aids like eye masks and ear plugs. And the hospital has developed an in-room “quiet TV channel” with information for patients and visitors on ways to maintain a relaxing environment.

Wynn acknowledged some hospital noises are unavoidable and said physicians and nurses won’t delay treatment or testing because of the 90-minute quiet time. But, she said, her team has taken steps to bring down noise levels and minimize distractions when and where possible.

For example, they’ve updated some equipment — like carts used for delivering food and other items have — to make sure they have the best wheels and “don’t make a lot of noise going down the hallway.”

The hospital also is looking to quiet its “tube station system,” which runs throughout the hospital as a quick way to deliver lab specimens, medications, or supplies, Wynn said.

“Those make a humming sound because of so much air going through them,” she said. “So we are working to install whisper kits.”

The kits, in essence, would provide padding for the tube stations and slow down materials to avoid slamming sounds. And staff members have been trained on changing alarm settings to reduce unnecessary beeping and prevent “alarm fatigue.”

When it comes to loud voices and even visitor and staff cellphone use, employees have been given suggested phrases to address the issues, Wynn said.

She said, even though the “Hush” initiative is being pitched as a campaign, the goal is to enact permanent change.

“We are shifting the culture,” Wynn said. “There are going to be situations where there is noise, but we have to be proactive in recognizing when and where they are going to occur and minimizing the disruption.”

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