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Finding a rhythm: How changing sounds of medical devices could improve patient care


Study compares percussive tones to loud, flat, annoying alarms in health settings.

Changing the sounds of medical devices could lead to better patient care.

A new study examined how percussive tones would compare to the loud, flat sounds used to alert physicians and clinicians about patient conditions. The more musical tones were detectable, were less annoying than flat ones, and did not interfere with speech comprehension in a patient care setting, according to researchers.

Finding a rhythm: How changing sounds of medical devices could improve patient care

Michael Schutz, PhD
McMaster University

“By simply changing the sounds in medical devices, we can improve the quality of health care delivery and even save lives,” said study coauthor Michael Schutz, PhD, a professor of music cognition and percussion at McMaster University. “It’s hugely important for future sound design in medical settings.”

Sound the alarm

Audible alarms are vital in health care because they alert physicians and staff faster than speech or visual cues, while allowing clinicians to keep their eyes focused on tasks. In hospitals and health care settings, patients are connected to monitors that generate hundreds or thousands of beeps and alerts per day, Schutz said in a news release.

Alarms must be loud and alerting to staff, but beyond that, the type of sound has not been a priority, Schutz said.

Sometimes, the noise annoys. Or worse – the researchers cited U.S. Food and Drug Administration data that medical device alarms have contributed to patient deaths.

Finding a rhythm: How changing sounds of medical devices could improve patient care

Joseph Schlesinger II, MD, FCCM
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

“Healthcare settings are a horrible cacophony of sound,” coauthor Joseph Schlesinger, MD, FCCM, said in the news release. Schlesinger is associate professor in the department of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“We’re barraged by auditory alarms that are loud, annoying, not informative, and often false or nonactionable,” Schlesinger said. “There’s also the sounds of conversations and other equipment. Imagine you're a patient being woken up. You can end up developing sleep deprivation or ICU delirium which can lead to long-term cognitive impairment.”

Same tune, different instrument

Changing the sounds to be less disruptive is a possible solution, and simpler than redesigning alarm management procedures and protocols, Schutz said. The changes can “preserve the pitch and rhythm of tone sequences,” so they are compatible with workers’ knowledge of current alarms.

Schutz compared the change to playing the same song on different instruments.

“You still recognize the tune,” he said. “Think about your own experience. We choose to listen to music and voluntarily subject ourselves to thousands of notes daily, so it's possible to structure sound in a way that’s not so annoying while messages still get through. There are other ways to make a sound pop out from the background than just making it loud and maximally annoying.”

The study, “Improving detectability of auditory interfaces for medical alarms through temporal variation in amplitude envelope,” was published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.

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