Breaking the sound barrier of safety screens


Window intercoms, traditionally seen in banks and ticket offices, are now being used to transform patient and staff interactions in hospitals across the country.

Safety screens put in place during the pandemic to limit the spread of infection made communication more challenging, but the use of window intercoms can make sound crystal clear.

The systems amplify and relay the voices on both sides of glass or Perspex partitions, transferring speech clearly from one side of the barrier to the other.

“They are a simple system that has incredible benefits,” said Market Development Director of Contacta Systems, Andrew Thomas.

“Not being able to hear clearly is frustrating for everyone involved. If patients have cognitive decline, visual impairments or just feel unwell, it’s much harder for them to follow conversation.

“The last thing any healthcare setting wants to do is risk patient confidentiality by staff having to raise their voices. These systems not only protect people’s safety and dignity, they also make for a smooth-running service because information doesn’t need to be repeated.”

Contacta’s window intercoms have been selected by a number of NHS trusts including University Hospitals Bristol, Nottingham University Hospitals and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation.

The systems use an ‘open duplex’ amplifier which means both parties can speak simultaneously. In busy reception areas where noise levels are high, quality speakers and microphones make sure speech is clear and sound is directed to the patient or staff member and not across the seating area for everyone to hear.

Models are available that will ‘sleep’ if they don’t detect conversation. This means they can be left on to meet the needs of a 24-hour service but energy costs are greatly reduced.

Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield recently installed five window intercom systems in reception areas throughout the site.

Following the installation of screens in their patient reception areas, staff reported they found it difficult to hear patients clearly. Front of house reception staff in particular were struggling as they both wore hearing aids.

“We knew we needed a solution for our front of house team that would help them, and our patients, to hear better through the screens,” said Assistant Operations Manager, Paul Fletcher.

“Contacta had previously installed a hearing loop in our audiology department so, after a procurement process, we were able to go back to them to discuss options for our reception areas.”

Infection control measures meant Contacta’s consultation was carried out remotely using photographs of the five reception areas with the highest footfall – the main reception, day surgery, endoscopy, pre-assessment and urgent treatment.

Contacta’s engineers were able to specify and plan the job ahead of installation, which was completed in one day.

“The engineer was very good, very thorough, and took time to show staff how the systems worked,” added Paul. “The window intercoms are making a big difference. Overall, we’re very happy.”

Receptionist, Jennie Dunstan, agrees.

“It’s a wonderful piece of equipment! The reception area echoes and it was very difficult to hear, especially if we had a lot of people in here. Now we can hear perfectly. The intercom is on all the time when we’re busy, so regular conversation is much easier and patients aren’t getting frustrated.”

With an ageing population, the prevalence of hearing loss is growing. Already, 12 million people in the UK have some level of hearing loss and that figure is expected to reach more than 14 million by 2035.

Hearing loops, which give clear sound to hearing aid wearers, are built into the intercom systems. By switching to the T-coil position on their hearing devices, users receive sound wirelessly direct from the microphone, cutting out distracting background noise.

It’s a feature that’s making a big difference for patients and staff at Chase Farm.

“I can hear patients perfectly now,” said Jennie. “People see the hearing loop sign and they’re all using it too. They know not to come right up to the screen; the sign shows them where to stand. The whole system has made our service much smoother and faster.”

Amplifiers for the systems are tucked neatly under the staff sides of the desks and the patient microphones are mounted in the glass to keep the limited surface space clear. Compact speakers sit just beneath the glass screens and hands-free use further limits the spread of infection.

“Not only do window intercom systems meet the current communication needs of staff and patients,” said Andrew Thomas, “but having the hearing loops in place also means the premises are inclusive to those with hearing loss, in line with BS8300 guidelines.

“It’s unlikely hospitals will remove screens now that they are in place so window intercom systems are a good investment, and one that will last. We still visit sites to maintain systems we installed 20 years ago.”

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