The COVID-19 pandemic taught healthcare management countless lessons and tested the readiness of facilities worldwide. The biggest lesson was that facilities must prioritize preparing for the worst-case scenario, including preparing supplies and training. When hospitals are at maximum capacity, communication within a facility is one of the most essential facets of patient care. Unfortunately, when the pandemic first hit hospitals, facilities quickly realized where gaps existed, impacting operational effectiveness, including their audio and communications systems. The experience forced many healthcare facilities to reevaluate their onsite communications and audio technology to prepare for the next healthcare crisis, whether a global pandemic or a local disaster.
Today’s healthcare managers have a range of challenges/issues in operating modern facilities. Generally, the larger the facility and the more urgent the care provided at a facility, the more technology is needed to support the operations. In particular, audio and mass communication are vital technologies to healthcare facilities worldwide. The largest healthcare facilities typically have the broadest set of challenges and, as a result, require more audio equipment to support operations.
With new audio and communications technology constantly being introduced, healthcare managers must stay informed about the latest trends and technology. When considering the needs of a large facility that provides emergency care, audio needs fall into three categories: medical, security, and administrative or general public areas of a facility, all of which are unique and require specific technology.
Most large hospitals’ departments and common areas represent natural zones when designing audio systems. Audio announcements in medical department areas range from routine staff announcements to emergency-oriented communications that alert staff to patients with life-threatening issues. In the busiest of hospitals, both of these types of announcements are relatively routine. The zones with the most critical care needs must have more comprehensive systems, such as emergency and triage rooms, crisis units, and intensive care. These areas need localized paging, where medical personnel will make announcements from a nursing station via phone intercoms or microphone stations within that immediate area.
The medical equipment integrates via software in medical alert systems in medical zones. Equipment connects via Ethernet into a centralized system to activate alerts, including audio alarms, voice announcements, text-based announcements on displays in the area, or through flashing lights.
Audio system technology consolidation is the most significant trend impacting hospitals, as the technology must work together seamlessly. Given the nature of the work it supports, it must be effective. The hardware inpatient and staff-facing areas also evolve into more consolidated units or endpoints connected over Ethernet. In a hospital hallway, the latest equipment comes packaged in a single hardware unit with multiple functions, including a loudspeaker, LCD displays, two-way communications, and multicolored flashers, whereas previously, they were installed individually. Once installed individually through an area, the bundled units Provide all the necessary equipment and can help declutter a site.
These units may be used during the routine parts of the day to show time and date or display pre-sent messages during medical emergencies. When emergencies occur, these same units can flash a specific color, distribute audio and text-based alerts, and allow staff to communicate to a central communications station via a single push button on the unit. Finally, the equipment can integrate multiple disparate systems, including nurse calls, hospital code systems, and newborn chimes, to name a few.
Due to the volume of people that hospitals care for, the chances of aggressive threats by visitors or patients are higher, particularly at larger hospitals. Onsite security personnel need audio to communicate with one another across all facility zones or make announcements in certain zones, such as the reception area. Many facilities deploy mass notification technology via software, mobile devices, and wireless ID badges to support threat response and staff safety. Security personnel or select administrators can use mobile devices from wherever they are to initiate a predetermined security reaction process. These systems include automated audio and visual announcements with instructions on what to do in case of violent threats, text messages to all staff, or even messages to off-site security for backup personnel when needed.
Healthcare facilities with a higher chance of threats equip employees with ID badges with built-in panic buttons. When pushed, the badge immediately alerts hospital security teams while identifying the person who sent the alert and indicates their location via GPS. Once again, when security teams receive a signal from a staff member about an incident, they can initiate their security response process within a facility to help bring awareness to the potential incident and keep staff members safe.
Patient Experience and Administrative Needs
Healthcare managers continue to emphasize the patient experience as part of a move toward patient-centered care. The use of audio is an element of an overall approach to improve the experience. For instance, in recovery areas, facilities will design audio systems to maximize patient comfort and ensure they get the critical rest they need. In these zones, facilities install loudspeakers outside rooms, setting volume at a lower but still audible level for medical personnel to hear. The number of announcements is also limited in many healing zones to help ensure patients receive maximum rest.
In addition, facilities often install background music systems in common areas to create a relaxed atmosphere and decrease tension, which is usually common in these facilities. It’s now common for hospitals to play background music in cafeterias, gift shop areas, and routine patient areas, like clinics or on-site optometrists. Music improves mood and can be effective when carefully deployed in select spaces.
Finally, administration areas or doctors’ offices where patients meet require specific audio technology due to the personal and confidential nature of the conversations. The United States has numerous privacy standards and regulations requiring hospitals to consider installing solutions such as sound masking to address acoustical challenges. The most common areas to install sound masking include outside patient and exam rooms, hallways, near nursing stations, and waiting areas where medical personnel speak with patients about their conditions. Administrative spaces like executive offices, meeting rooms, or call centers that handle sensitive information will also use sound masking technology to protect these confidential conversations.
If a facility is considering a new audio system, it should start by involving all stakeholders to assess needs. First and foremost, this is the medical or nursing staff, followed by administration, security, and IT/AV personnel. When considering new audio technology, consider the total cost of ownership of adding new equipment, as software-based solutions can be upgraded over time, making them more flexible and scalable. Audio is a vital component of a healthcare facility’s operations. Involving the right internal stakeholders and hiring audio designers and integrators experienced in healthcare installations to help identify the best equipment will set facility managers up for a successful project.
Manny Kitagawa is Business Development Manager at AtlasIED.