Newswise — Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have found that making medical device alarms more musical can significantly reduce perceived annoyance without negatively impacting the ability of research participants to learn and remember the alarms.

The study, reported in Perioperative Care and Operating Room Management, builds on previous work on patient safety and device alarms by researchers at McMaster and their Vanderbilt co-author for this study, Joseph Schlesinger II, professor of Anesthesiology, Biomedical Engineering, and Hearing and Speech Sciences and a faculty member at the Blair School of Music.

The team tested a synthesized xylophone sound against standardized sounds used in medical equipment alarm systems. “The xylophone creates a richer acoustic profile closer to musical instruments than the beeps and buzzes we often hear in hospitals,” said Schlesinger. “This musical quality turns out not to get in the way of quick identification.”

In a controlled experiment, 44 participants were tasked with learning to identify six short alarm melodies in both the standard and xylophone timbres. Only the timbre — that is, the tone color or quality — was changed, with volume and pitch sequence held constant across both sets of sounds.

Recognition accuracy was similar across both conditions. And when asked to compare the two timbres side by side, participants overwhelmingly rated the musical xylophone sounds as less annoying.

“This result demonstrates an opportunity to address a pervasive complaint about medical alarms without compromising patient safety,” Schlesinger said.

Hospitals have a great many auditory alerts, with prior research indicating upward of 85% of alarms require no urgent clinical action. This overabundance of noise poses patient risks, with clinicians sometimes tuning out important alerts. Modifying timbre could mitigate excessive annoyance while keeping alarms informative, the study suggests.

“Beeps feel like sensory overload, while more natural sounds are less abrasive,” Schlesinger said. “Shaping timbre to follow musical principles allows alarms to cut through background noise without being uncomfortably loud or shrill. With further testing, musically informed alarms could become a standard part of patient care.”

The team's research is highlighted in the current issue of Scientific American. The team formed in 2015 and their work has already informed the international standard for auditory medical alarms. Among Schlesinger's partners at McMaster for this study are Michael Schutz, PhD, professor of Music Cognition/Percussion, and graduate students Cameron Anderson and Andrés Elizondo López.

Schlesinger is vice president of the International Association for Music and Medicine and a member of the medical advisory board at Philips corporation. He is scheduled to give a presentation on alarm sounds and patient safety in Singapore at the upcoming 18th World Congress of Anesthesiologists. More about his work can be found on his page at Linktree.


Journal Link: Perioperative Care and Operating Room Management