How Redesigning The Abrasive Alarms Of Hospital Soundscapes Can Save Lives

Between 2011 and 2013, ambient electronic musician Yoko K. Sen spent time in a local hospital receiving treatment. She didn’t like what she heard. The incessant stream of jarring noises—slamming doors, beeping medical equipment, blaring televisions in neighboring rooms—wasn’t exactly conducive to a restful recovery. When she learned that some believe hearing to be the last sense we lose before death, Sen began wondering: Is this really what terminal patients should hear during their last moments on Earth?

Now, Sen is on a mission to use sound design to make hospitals calmer, more soothing places to stay. Conducting extensive research on the needs of health care providers and alarm fatigue—a condition that occurs when people become desensitized after being exposed to too many alerts—Sen is currently prototyping sound environments that help patients and providers cut through the clamor, potentially improving both patient health and medical care in the process.

“The incredible thing we’re learning, and the very beginning of the dawn of human-centered design in health care, is how little attention we’ve paid to most things that aren’t clinical,” says Nick Dawson, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Sibley Innovation Hub, a group that’s working with Sen and other partners to use design to improve patient experiences at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. “It’s not just that [medical sound design] has been done poorly, it’s that it’s never been done.”

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