Why Soundproofing May Be The Key To Safeguarding Confidential Health Information

Imagine you're at your doctor's office. The doctor comes into the exam room and starts going over the test results you've recently had. You have a conversation with him, discuss the medications you're on, and various other sensitive--and very private--subjects regarding your health.

Unbeknownst to you, that conversation with your doctor may not have been so private.

Certainly healthcare providers want to stay in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is supposed to safeguard patient confidentiality. They take cautious measures to protect computer equipment, hardware, software, etc from natural and environmental hazards, unauthorized access and intrusion, and the like. But that only covers written and electronic patient information. Privacy extends to oral communication as well, so the thin walls, loud phone conversations and open spaces in your doctor's office are also potential privacy breeches.


Unfortunately, soundproofing is one of the last things that medical practices think about when it comes to their office design. (Again, they're more concerned about the protection of electronically stored information.) But soundproofing is an essential part of creating the privacy that patients expect and deserve. After all, it's great that confidential information is safely locked away in their computer system, but if you can hear Mrs. Smith sobbing in exam room one about needing antidepressants because her marriage is falling apart, another patient is yelling at the doctor in exam room two about a possible misdiagnosis, and you can hear nurses giggling in the hallway about Mr. Jones' hemorrhoids, then how confidential can patient information really be? Such oral privacy breeches could be embarrassing for all parties involved---and prove costly to the healthcare provider.

To be clear, HIPAA ensures a right to privacy, but it doesn't specifically require the retrofitting of existing buildings for soundproofing to prevent oral breeches of privacy. All it states is that healthcare providers must provide "reasonable measures to insure that health information remains private" in the form of "physical barriers that protect against uses and disclosures." With such loose language, HIPAA's right to privacy act may not be enough to protect confidential information. That's because creating a "physical barrier" in most cases means little more than pulling a curtain, making sure other people aren't within earshot of the patient, and whispering of information. Those measures don't account for sound transmission through and between walls, floors and ceilings. (More on that in a minute.)

And although HIPAA creates a right to privacy, it doesn't create the right for private persons to sue if they feel their privacy has been compromised, creating little incentive for healthcare providers to soundproof their buildings. However, you can file a complaint, which could lead to fines and a requirement that the provider correct their procedures to prevent future privacy issues. And that is starting to become incentive enough for healthcare providers to soundproof their buildings.


Soundproofing existing structures could be as simple as swapping out traditional ceiling tiles for sound-reducing ceiling tiles, or adding carpeting and window treatments to absorb sound. But it's important to understand the basic physics of sound in order to make the correct assessment for every building's individual needs.

Sound control within an environment is measured two different ways: STC and NRC.

STC, or Sound Transmission Class, measures sound transmission between spaces such as the walls separating offices, suites, multiple tenant buildings, townhouses, and condos. It also applies to partition walls, corridor walls, and floor/ceiling assemblies. The higher the STC number, the greater the resistance to sound transmission, and the more sound is deadened. When it comes to soundproofing healthcare facilities, STC value is critical.

See the chart below for sample STC values and performance

STC Rating of 30 = Loud speech understood fairly well

STC Rating of 35 = Loud speech audible but unintellible

STC Rating of 42 = Loud speech audible as a murmur

STC Rating of 45 = Must strain to hear loud speech

STC Rating of 48 = Some loud speech barely audible

STC Rating of 50 = Loud speech not audible

As a general rule, with a change of +/- 5 STC rating, sound transmission will be clearly noticeable. With a change of +/- 10 STC rating, noise transmission will be either twice or half as loud.

NRC, or Noise Reduction Coefficient, measures the sound within confined spaces, such as auditoriums, gymnasiums, night clubs, sports complexes, and theaters. In these types of facilities, you're concerned with the absorption of airborne noise within that confined space, reducing airborne noise that escapes the space, and aiding in noise reverberation control. The higher the NRC number, the better the sound absorption.


One of the easiest ways to soundproof a structure is to switch out traditional ceiling tiles for sound-reducing ceiling tiles. Sound-reducing ceiling tiles both absorb sound and block sound. That means rooms will be quieter, and sound transmission from room to room via the ceiling assembly will be greatly reduced.

Other easy fixes include window stripping to block exterior noise, weather stripping around interior doors to prevent sound escape, exchanging tile or linoleum flooring for carpeting to reduce noise, and installing wall coverings and window treatments to absorb sound.

One of the best ways to soundproof healthcare facilities, however, involves installing an acoustical insulation in wall cavities. Doing so will greatly increase the STC value of the wall assembly, which is what you need to prevent sound from carrying from room to room. Several insulation products have good STC values (including fiberglass and cellulose) but to get the best value consider installing an insulation that is specifically designed for acoustical applications. Products such as Monoglass are spray-applied (new construction) or pressure-injected (existing walls) into wall cavities, ensuring a complete fill of the void is achieved, including any nooks and cracks. Fiber-based acoustical insulations like Monoglass offer the highest STC possible, ensuring that the private conversation you have with your doctor behind closed-doors will remain private.

Certainly, soundproofing isn't a cure-all to saving healthcare facilities from costly fines resulting from oral privacy breeches. And until and unless the HIPAA law is amended, soundproofing won't even be required. But given that a lot of healthcare facilities are in older, uninsulated buildings, adding soundproofing will go a long way in ensuring patient privacy.

Want more info? Contact Katie McVay at Tridon Industries, a Philadelphia-based insulation and fireproofing contractor. You can reach her at 800-760-8044 or by email at k.mcvay@tridonindustries.com.