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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 83 - Noise epidemic a prescription for hospital blues

I AM a practising patient. In a lifetime of afflictions, including hysterical dandruff, grumbling nosebleeds and psychosomatic pieces of grit in the eye, I have been as familiar with the interior of my doctors’ surgeries as I have with my sitting-rooms.

In my world, measured out by plastic National Health Service teaspoons, instructions to "shake the bottle before use", and "do not take this preparation if pregnant or experiencing hot flushes", my medical motto is, "I to the pills will lift mine eyes." I am not just a common catarrhal and cough-cure character, but a mass of fascinating scientific data.

Although I may not feel groggy, my body sometimes tells me I should visit the doctor just to get reassurance that my itchy ear is not symptomatic of a dodgy gall-bladder or dicky ticker. I know that even if the doctor looks and sounds asleep, he is concentrating hard and that, no matter how absurd my complaint may seem, he will not evoke even the ghost of a smile but will sit up with a start, automatically write a prescription and ask me to send in the next patient.

I get on well with doctors, from ones who pale when I appear, others who shower me with free samples from drugs companies and show me the door, to some who have taken me on exciting adventures into the world of medical science in search of reasons for my occasional feelings of vague malaise.

What I like generally about my practitioners is their grave and reverend demeanour and their surgeries, oases of silent, stoical endurance, ruffled occasionally by children attempting to tear up furniture.

WHEN visiting general practitioners, one can rely on sessions of essentially calm treatment, something that, as, a one-time ward patient, I know rarely happens in health service hospitals. According to a recently-published study by researchers from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, high noise levels in hospital wards could hinder patients’ recovery.

Monitoring the former Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s intensive care and high dependency units, and the Western General Hospital’s intensive care units, they recorded, on occasions, levels of over 90 decibels, which, I am told, is about the sound of heavy traffic.

Sounds included bin lids being slammed, chairs scraping along floors, rattling trolleys and nurses chattering - in my experience, incessantly, in the small hours. Patients, undergoing hospital routines of having blood-pressure taken, heart and pulse-beat monitored, needles jabbed into coy veins, being awakened to take sleeping pills, having thermometers thrust into often inconvenient apertures and worried about catching superbugs, desperately need quiet, nocturnal kips.

There is also the ordeal of visitors, some with fixed smiles of saccharinal sympathy, anxious to leave the sick-bed as soon as possible, others who eat your grapes and talk incessantly about their lobelias, and a few projecting remorseless optimism: "I’ve never seen you look so well."

THERE are also the group visitors, the members talking continually among themselves and eyeing the patient with surprise that he is still around and - the most appreciated - those who breathe quiet reassurance and do not stay the full visiting hour.

I have visited hospitals where ward television sets blared, mainly, I suspect, for the staff’s benefit, where patients, reluctant to complain lest they upset authority, suffered under the remorseless sonic barrage.

To foster such ward entertainment, a company called Patientline has supplied 17,500 pay-service, bedside televisions to numerous health service hospitals. Unfortunately, they have no "off" switch, are centrally controlled by the hospital and, from 6am until 10pm, subscribers face continuous programmes. Non-subscribers endure 16 hours of Patientline advertisements. The company has now produced sets with "off" switches, but vulnerable hospital patients should have been spared such merciless television exposure.

Meanwhile ward noise - much of which could be avoided with care, compassion and courtesy - continues, and not just in Britain. The levels in one United States hospital in Minnesota exceeded that of a pneumatic drill.

Florence Nightingale stated: "It may seem a strange principle to enunciate that the very first requirement in a hospital is that it should do the sick no harm." Will hospital administrators please heed her words and turn down the din? Good health, everyone.

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