How distracting is noise in the operating room?

There's No Substitute for Experience

Over the years there have been numerous studies connecting distractions and surgical errors. Recently, yet another study was conducted showing a correlation between noise distractions in the operating room and communication barriers. In general, not being able to properly communicate in an operating room can be extremely risky for patients, especially if there is some kind of an emergency that requires medical staff to talk back and forth and work quickly.

The first thing to keep in mind is that operating rooms are not silent. Instead, there is the noise of the equipment, medical staff talking with each other -- and in some cases -- personal electronic devices going off. Others also prefer to operate with music on, something that could end up being distracting to other staff members in the room.

In an effort to gauge how these distractions effect the surgeons in operating rooms, a group of 15 surgeons -- whose years of experience ranged -- were tested on how well they could understand and repeat words with background noise.

According to the study, which was published this month in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, background noise did make it harder for surgeons to understand and repeat unpredictable words. Hence, background noise was found to be a barrier to communication.

Whether or not music is acceptable to play in the operating room has also been a long-standing point of contention among surgeons, anesthesiologists and caregivers. Some say music can be soothing and helps staff focus, while others say it can be a distraction.

According to the recent study, music was only a communication barrier when the surgeon was involved in an actual surgical task.

When it comes to background noise, one has to wonder if there should be a line that cannot be crossed. For example, should cellphones be left on to ring? Is it OK that medical staff at times answer those calls in the operating room? What about colleague chatter? While it is good to have working relationships, could these side conversations be distracting?

As a Tennessee resident, what do you think? Should there be stricter rules to prevent unnecessary noise in the operating room? Would this lead to a decrease in surgical errors?

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