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The legendary nurse, Florence Nightingale, once warned about a cruelty inflicted on sick people: unnecessary noise. That was more than a century ago, but today's hospitals are still as noisy as bus stations in some cases. Studies show this constant din is stressful for hospital workers and bad for patients who need rest. In a search for peace and quite, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore recently called in two acoustical engineers, and NPR's Nell Boyce reports on what they found.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Walk through the door of an intensive-care unit at Johns Hopkins and the first thing you'll hear is--well, the door.

(Soundbite of electric door opening)

Ms. CLAIRE BEERS (Pediatric Manager, Johns Hopkins Hospital): That's the regular sound of that door.

(Soundbite of hospital noise)

BOYCE: Claire Beers is the nurse manager for this pediatric ICU. She hears this door a million times a week. And that's not all she hears.

(Soundbite of hospital noise)

Ms. BEERS: So this is a very noisy part of the unit, doors opening and closing, pneumatic tube comes and goes, Addressograph(ph) being stamped, lots of conversation, they're answering the telephone.

BOYCE: This floor cares for desperately sick children, but they're surrounded by incessant noise, the hum of a vacuum, the clatter of meal trays and the paging system.

(Soundbite of paging system)

Unidentified Voice: Anna Johnson, you have a call on 6-0. Anna Johnson on 6-0.

Ms. EILEEN BUSCH-VISHNIAC (Engineer, Johns Hopkins Hospital): I thought they had the worst paging system I had ever seen or heard anywhere.

BOYCE: Eileen Busch-Vishniac is an engineer at Hopkins. She came here with her colleague, James West, the famous microphone inventor. Neither of them had ever studied hospital noise before, but West said they were immediately appalled.

Mr. JAMES WEST (Engineer, Johns Hopkins Hospital): The first time I was here I said it's impossible for me to work in an environment as noisy as this.

BOYCE: The two engineers found that the average noise level was the same night or day, about 60 decibels. That's like a neighbor's lawn mower wailing outside of your window at 6 in the morning. Busch-Vishniac says studies show that that's typical for all kinds of hospitals, and noise levels have been steadily increasing since the 1960s.

Ms. BUSCH-VISHNIAC: So it was clear that there was a problem screaming for some attention and that there was very little known about how to attack the problem.

BOYCE: In the past, hospitals just asked people to speak quietly. But the engineers thought that approach was hopeless. They recommended technological solutions, like small personal pagers that doctors and nurses can wear around their necks. Beers pushes a button on hers to show how it works.

Ms. BEERS: Call Tricia Nace(ph).

(Soundbite of pager)

Unidentified Voice #1: Finding...

Unidentified Voice #2: ...Tricia Nace.

(Soundbite of pager beeps)

Ms. TRICIA NACE: Hello?

BOYCE: With these pagers the squawk of the overhead loudspeaker dropped from once every five minutes to once every half-hour. And noise levels will soon drop even more when the department moves to a new building. It's been designed with lots of quieting features, like private consultation rooms.

That's a big change in thinking. The design of many modern hospitals actually amplifies noise. Consider this oncology floor at Johns Hopkins that was built a few years ago.

(Soundbite of hospital noise)

BOYCE: West points out that for hygienic reasons, everything has a hard, easy-to-clean surface.

Mr. WEST: And the hard walls are to sound as a mirror is to light. If sound is free to bounce around, it will to just that.

BOYCE: To trap the sound, the engineers built some sound-absorbing panels. They use special fiberglass wrapped in an antibacterial fabric that can be cleaned easily. The panels got Velcro'd to the ceilings, and nurse manager Anita Reedy(ph) says the effect was instantaneous.

Ms. ANITA REEDY (Nurse Manager): I mean, it was so quiet. I walked on the unit. There was no more background or white noise going on. It was great.

BOYCE: Unfortunately, the Velcro didn't stick. The panels fell down after about a week. But they're going back up, and the staff can't wait.

West says many hospitals are reluctant to discuss their noise problem publicly. He's pleased that Johns Hopkins is so open about its research.

Mr. WEST: The world will know that Hopkins is interested in this problem, but more importantly, the world will know that it is a real problem. And I'm not so sure that many people know that.

BOYCE: So if you're headed for a hospital stay, you might just want to bring some ear plugs.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's our health news for this morning.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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