A series of acoustical privacy products have undergone several levels of development and are installed in some 100 million square feet of new office space each year in healthcare, financial, and other office settings.(8) The utilization of panels and tiles are specific demonstrations, according to HIPAA, that indicate a healthcare facility or practice has made a bona fide effort to meet oral privacy needs.Certain building materials can actually block sound waves from traveling through walls. To measure their effectiveness, these materials are assigned a Sound Transmission Class rating. Walls and windows, for instance, can be designed with this purpose in mind, but these noise-reduction products often are more expensive than traditional ones.
Another way to achieve sound diminution within your practice is to use surface materials that can absorb or deflect ambient sound waves, thus preventing reverberations from traveling around the room. This property is measured according to the Noise Reduction Coefficient, which rates how well a material absorbs sound.
Another measurement of noise-reduction technology is the Speech Intelligibility Index, which is calculated from acoustical measurements of speech and noise. Panels and other products can be designed to absorb certain frequencies of sound, meaning that although sound does get through, it is unintelligible and carries no meaning, which often has been called the “Charlie Brown effect” in reference to the popular Peanuts cartoons in which adult voices come across as unintelligible musical notes. Maintaining a low Speech Intelligibility Index is a proven way to achieve HIPAA compliance and can be easily achieved through various technologies in a medical practice.
Although active speech privacy systems such as white noise machines are popular, they do pose a few drawbacks; they mask meaningful conversation with perhaps even less-welcome noise rather than diminish sound levels altogether. Thus medical practitioners and patients may actually have to speak louder, increasing the likelihood that their conversations will be overheard, which is especially true in healthcare settings for older patients who already have compromised hearing and may rely on the use of hearing aids.
Adding noise to noise is adding pollution to pollution; in this sense, noise is the pollutant. It is similar to using a scented room refresher to mask noisome odors; it only adds to the overall smelliness of the room, and it can be harmful. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, showed that exposure to continuous white noise sabotages the development of the auditory region of the brain, which may ultimately impair hearing and language acquisition, at least in young rats.(10) Unlike passive devices such as sound-dampening panels, white noise machines require electricity and are not guaranteed reliability all the time.
Other Requirements for Sound Mitigation Products in Healthcare
Aside from the acoustic technology and speech privacy capabilities, other factors must be considered when selecting a sound-dampening product in a medical setting, including the product’s flammability rating and its ability to withstand the growth of germs, mold, and mildew. Some traditional sound panels, for instance, are wood framed with cotton inside. Obviously these materials are highly flammable and it is always essential to check a product’s fire rating. It is better to look for a product that is not as combustible; one particular panel on the market has a steel slag and basalt rock interior and is covered with a cloth that does not promote the growth of mold or mildew, meeting both flammability and antibiotic/antifungal standards. Uneven surfaces inside the panel cause the sound to get lost through deflection.
Today’s healthcare settings should put patients at ease while adding eye appeal. Look for sound-dampening panels and other products that offer a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors to customize the look and style to fit your specific needs. Panels can even be made into “sound clouds” for use on the ceiling. Some products on the market actually can be covered with messages you might wish to impart to patients, including advice about healthful living or introductions to new staff members.
It is imperative to make sure your dermatology practice or medical facility is compliant with HIPAA sound privacy mandates. Your staff also will benefit from working in a setting in which communication is made easier and less stressful.
All from Trillium Creek Dermatology and Aesthetic Center, Medina, Ohio. Dr. Torok also is from Northwestern Ohio University College of Medicine, Rootstown. The authors report no conflicts of interest in relation to this article.