06/18/2012 04:17 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Does Anyone Actually Sleep in the Hospital?

What you wouldn't give for a good night's sleep! Perhaps last night, you snuggled inside the sheets and closed your eyes. Your mind let go of the cares of the day and... ahh! The slumber you so richly deserve is seeping into every cell of your battered body. Then suddenly, some electronic alert sound goes off, your cell phone registers another email received. Or someone else in the house has outlasted your energy level (once again) and voices and music start sounding off. No matter what the source, your sleep is disturbed.

A good night's sleep is important to our health. In the confines of your own home, occasional disturbed sleep isn't a health problem if it only occurs a few times a month. Guess where getting restful sleep is a problem? A hospital! A new study shows that in a hospital setting, nocturnal noises can slow down the healing process. Ironic, isn't it? The place where people go to heal may actually be set up to slow the healing process.

I'll be honest -- as a doctor, I rarely have noticed how loud the commotion in hospitals can be. That's probably because I'm pretty busy when I'm there and preoccupied with getting things done quickly. But I recently visited a friend and I was surprised by the amount of noise. Voices over a loud speaker, phones ringing, TVs at unusually high volumes, beeps coming from devices all around the room! And it seems like a cart is rolling down the hallway every few minutes! Can someone fix the wheels on those things?! How come I never noticed this before? My friends and I were both reading books and I couldn't concentrate with all the noise. All this noise doesn't just disturb concentration, it hampers a patient's slumber by actually disrupting brain wave patterns; it can even raise patients' heart rates.

Sometimes we dismiss the importance of sleep in a hospital. That's a mistake. Sleep is a serious matter. Researchers suggest increasing the quality of hospital patients' sleep may mean shorter hospital stays, fewer sedatives given and could even decrease the number of cases of delirium in the ICU. Some hospitals are already enlisting "sleep enhancements" like quiet time hours, visual paging and reminders to staff and visitors to keep noise levels low. And if you or a loved one is in the hospital, you should speak up if the noise is disturbing your sleep. After all, sleeping at the hospital should be anything but bad medicine.


Ann Intern Med. 2012 Jun 11. [Epub ahead of print]
"Sleep Disruption Due to Hospital Noises: A Prospective Evaluation."
Buxton OM, Ellenbogen JM, Wang W, Carballeira A, O'Connor S, Cooper D, Gordhandas AJ, McKinney SM, Solet JM.

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