Designing sound and reducing noise for better medical treatment
Mayo Clinic is not only one of the leading medical centers in the world, but also a leader when it comes to sound and voice in healthcare. As a clinical research and educational institution, Mayo Clinic is dedicated to experimentation in order to improve capabilities and experience for both caregivers and patients, and their recent explorations into voice apps are part of a longer trajectory examining the impact of sound on the entire healthcare experience.
Recognizing that excessive noise can disrupt sleep, which in turn can impact a patient’s immune response and overall healing, Mayo Clinic modified the hospital’s physical environment in order to reduce noise. The process began when Mayo Clinic nurses measuring noise levels in the hospital discovered that a portable x-ray machine emitted sound that was louder than a motorcycle and the bustle of the morning nursing shift change was as loud as a jackhammer. (1)
So, Mayo Clinic worked with architects to optimize the acoustics in their facilities, adding absorptive materials to cut down the reverberation of highly reflective surfaces, making walls airtight to reduce sound bleed across spaces, and reconfiguring floor plans so that all patient rooms are single units, and highly-trafficked utility and supply rooms are positioned perpendicularly to drop the amount of noise entering patient’s rooms. (2) These efforts to shape the sound experience through physical design, bringing a greater sense of quiet and calm to the hospital, can help reduce stress for both caregivers and patients, support more restful sleep, and ultimately aid the recovery process.
Beyond the hospital environment, Mayo Clinic is also invested in finding ways to bring better clinical support into the home. Just as their website has served as an important medical resource for web users around the world, voice-enabled technology is the latest way to reach people wherever they are, leveraging a platform users increasingly rely on to get information. Building tools for voice is not only responsive to the behaviors of younger, voice-fluent users, but can also provide a more accessible way to connect with older or physically challenged users for whom screen or text-based interactions might be a barrier.
In 2017, Mayo Clinic released the "First Aid" skill for Amazon Alexa as a downloadable app that provided information on over fifty common first aid situations. They subsequently began working directly with Amazon to develop a wider-scale health information library for Alexa, which took Mayo Clinic’s entire web-based library covering over 8,000 different symptoms and conditions and adapted it for Alexa devices. Now when an Alexa user asks a health related question, the response begins with, “According to Mayo Clinic… .” (3)
“I think that in three to five years, voice across the patient’s healthcare journey will play a significant role in meeting them where their needs are — from self-triage at home, discharge instructions at the hospital, and healthcare reminders when they get home.” — Dr. Sandhya Pruthi, Chief Medical Editor and Associate Medical Director, Mayo Clinic (4)
Mayo Clinic has also begun looking at ways to detect health risks based on changes in a patient’s voice. These voice biomarkers — such as changes in speaking pace, pitch, and intensity — could potentially help to assess a range of health conditions, using voice-enabled devices and AI to enable more responsive interactions between patients and providers in the hospital and at home.
Written by Paul Amitai, Executive Strategy Director
Published June 2020
(1) "Study Finds High Levels of Hospital Noise," ABC News (Jan 6, 2006).
(2) BaRoss, Carolyn, “Acoustical design in healthcare: An issue that needs to be heard,” Healthcare Design (Jun 10, 2010).
(3 & 4) Vernadakis, George, “The Future of Voice Tech in Healthcare: Chatbots with Empathy?,” Everyday Health (Jan 02, 2020).
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