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Hospital sound design can be deadly

A new design system attempts to solve this intractable problem through music.

Hospital sound design can be deadly
[Photo: Scott Rudd/courtesy Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum]

Illness isn’t the only threat that comes with being in the hospital. In a 2014 survey of 20 hospitals, all but one hospital reported that the constant alarms of hospital technology are a problem for patient safety. When alarms are screaming for attention every minute of the day–often for minor, non-emergency issues–doctors and nurses can’t keep track of the ones that are really important and become desensitized to the din. In 2011, the Boston Globe found that hundreds of patients have died as a result over the course of five years. The added stress of the hospital’s noise can also make sick people sicker.

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A new system takes a novel approach to monitoring patients’ vital signs, like heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen saturation, with pleasant-sounding melodies instead of alarms. Designed by the audio branding studio Man Made Music as a commission for the Cooper Hewitt exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, it represents a new way of thinking about sound–and a promising approach to mitigating “alarm fatigue.”

[Image: Man Made Music]
“Right now, alarms are only designed to do two things: to scream for attention, which stresses patients out, creates cortisol reaction in the body, and makes them sicker,” says Joel Beckerman, the founder of Man Made Music. “And the second thing it’s designed to do is prevent device manufacturers from getting sued. So all the devices scream as loud as they can for the smallest thing, specifically to get through the FDA. It’s putting the device at the center of the picture rather than putting the patient at the center.”

To untrained ears, Man Made Music’s system sounds like the kind of ambient noise or peaceful muzak you’d hear in a spa, with a soothing low hum and bright, happy notes layered on top. But concealed within the music is a sonic data system based on two tones. A lower base tone indicates heart rate, with a higher tone representing blood oxygen saturation. The closer the interval between the two notes, the more there’s a problem with a patient’s oxygen levels. To represent blood pressure, there’s a cooing, bird-like sound that goes from low to high.

A doctor isn’t going to get hard numbers from this musical representation of data, but that’s not really the point. The idea is that a doctor can learn, with little training, to detect if a patient’s vitals are normal–and when they’re not. And by ensuring the indicators sound like soothing music, the system also makes the hospital experience better for patients. It doesn’t fully solve the problem–for dire emergencies, traditional kinds of alarms will still be needed–but removing the din of alerts and beeps that indicate vital signs could help both patients’ well-being and their doctors.

At the Cooper Hewitt exhibition, visitors can listen to two recordings side by side. One set of headphones plays the cacophony you’d normally hear in the hospital. The other shows how the new musical system works. It’s far closer to what you’d hear in yoga class than a hospital room. But while it’s hard to differentiate between the sounds at first listen, Beckerman firmly believes that doctors will be able to use it with only a little training. “We as human beings are already wired for this stuff,” he says.

Right now, the system is patent pending, and Beckerman and his team are working with several hospital groups on perfecting it before beginning testing. He hopes to do a clinical study and create a white paper that hospitals can use to tell device manufacturers that this is their new standard for alarms. The next step? FDA approval. The entire process could take 5 to 10 years, but it could eventually help untold patients–and the doctors who care for them.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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