Redesigning medical alarms to improve public health

Hand pushing nurse call button . patient press red emergency button to calling nurse for help in hospital. Mother hand pressing emergency nurse call button while her daughter have a high fever.
© Kanpisut Chaichalor

Researchers at McMaster University and Vanderbilt University explain how could changing the tune of hospital medical alarms could improve public health

The research from McMaster University and Vanderbilt University builds on previous studies on sound design in medical alarms and focuses on the shape of the sound.

The team compared industry-standard flat beeps against alarm tones that rise and fall gradually, like musical notes, and how the different tones affect speech recognition.

“By simply changing the sounds in medical devices, we can improve the quality of healthcare delivery and even save lives,” explains co-author and professor of music cognition and percussion at McMaster Michael Schutz.

‘This is the first time we’ve shown musical alarms work well for speech comprehension while also reducing annoyance’

“This is the first time we’ve shown musical alarms work well for speech comprehension while also reducing annoyance. It’s hugely important for future sound design in medical settings. Patients in hospitals generate hundreds of beeps and alerts per day and how these devices sound has not been a priority beyond being loud and alerting to staff,” says Michael Schutz.

Rating detectability of tones and alarms

Study participants were asked to rate the detectability of flat tones and percussive alarms whilst performing a speech recognition task. This was designed to approximate real-world demand on healthcare workers.

It turned out that the percussive tones were detectable and did not interfere with speech comprehension.

Respondents also rated how annoying the tones were. They found that musical tones were less bothersome than flat tones.

“Healthcare settings are a horrible cacophony of sound, we’re barraged by auditory alarms that are loud, annoying, not informative, and often false or non-actionable,” adds Dr. Joseph Schlesinger, co-author and associate professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University.

“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.”

Why are auditory medical alarms so crucial in the healthcare sector?

Auditory medical alarms play a crucial role in healthcare because they alert staff quicker than speech or visual warnings in a way that does not disrupt them from their other tasks.

Most efforts to reduce noise pollution in hospitals have been focused on limiting the number of alarms rather than changing the sounds.

In fact, the FDA claims that issues with hospital alarms have contributed to more than 500 deaths.

“Making the sounds less disruptive is a simpler solution than redesigning alarm management procedures and protocols industry-wide. Think of it like playing the same song on different instruments. You still recognize the tune,” states Schutz. “By simply changing the sounds we can make alarms that allow for better staff communication and reduce recovery times. This can even save lives.”

‘We choose to listen to music and voluntarily subject ourselves to thousands of notes daily’

“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.”



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