Noise levels were decreased by 35% on the Lunder Building's patient floors in comparison to average daytime noise levels recorded in hospitals worldwide, by combining design with changes in clinical practice.

Many of us use alarm clocks to get up in the mornings and we’re all aware of the jarring sounds of a traffic-ridden street or the loud whirl of a vacuum cleaner. But what’s shocking to learn is that the average daytime decibel levels inside hospitals around the world is equivalent to any one of these sounds. A healthy individual would find these noises disruptive while trying to get a good night’s sleep, so it comes as no surprise that hospitalized patients rate noise as one of the top complaints during their stays.

Noise levels have been on the rise in hospitals since the 1960s and increased levels can raise blood pressure, increase sensitivity to pain, raise stress levels, and disrupt sleep necessary for healing (which in turn can lead to increased falls and injuries, depression, and altered glucose metabolism). As large bodies of research indicate the healing benefits of quiet, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and NBBJ set out to achieve the quietest patients floors possible in the new Lunder Building.

NBBJ employed a combination of design strategies to reduce noise throughout the patient tower:

  • Elevators, public waiting areas, and staff meeting rooms are located along the central circulation spine away from the patient rooms.

  • Dispersed “interaction zones” prevent nurses and clinicians from congregating at one main nursing station, while support and service areas are tucked away off the main corridor.

  • Rubber flooring and acoustical ceiling tiles buffer the sound of movement and chatter

  • Large, sliding glass doors to private patient rooms allow greater visibility and natural light to enter the corridors, while keeping the noise out when closed.

MGH also implemented new communications software using iPhones so that clinicians can contact each other without using overhead paging systems. The patient floors also have ambient noise sensors that recalibrate critical physiological alarms according to the noise levels at that particular time—so if it is louder at one time of the day, the alarm volume increases, and then readjusts at quieter times.

Using a standardized Hospital Consumer Assessment survey, MGH has seen increases of six percentage points and higher on the quietness questions for the Lunder patient units. An assessment of the decibel levels on the Lunder patient floors shows an average of 46.5 decibels, which is 35% lower than the worldwide average of 72 decibels. This difference in decibel levels amounts to being nearly 6 times quieter, as perceived by the human ear.