Many of us will know just how hard it can be to make yourself heard at work when someone has the radio turned up too loud. The same is true when you work in an operating theater, according to the findings of a new study.

A theater team performing surgery on a patient.Share on Pinterest
The researchers report that “often dance and drum and bass were played fairly loudly.”

The study, published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, investigates how background music impacted on surgical operations through an analysis of video recordings.

Co-lead author Sharon-Marie Weldon, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London in the UK, explains that some background music can have a beneficial effect:

“Music can be helpful to staff working in operating theaters where there is often a lot of background noise, as well as other distractions – it can improve concentration.”

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal that found when surgeons listened to their preferred music, they closed their incisions more effectively.

However, the researchers found that music could disrupt communication between different members of theater teams. In some cases, surgeons had to repeat requests for instruments or supplies made to nurses. The researchers also found evidence of tension in some theater teams recorded on video.

Specifically, in cases where music was played, the researchers noted that repeated requests were five times more likely to occur than during operations without musical accompaniment. They estimate that each repeated request can add up to an extra minute to a procedure’s duration and lead to frustration among clinical staff.

Music was first played in operating theaters in 1914 as a way of calming patients. Nowadays, experts estimate that music is played during 53-72% of surgical operations, with many modern theaters equipped with devices specifically for playing music such as MP3 players and portable speakers.

With most surgical patients anesthetized, music is now very much for the benefit of the medical staff.

The researchers analyzed video recordings made of a total of 20 operations carried out over a period of 6 months in two operating theaters in the UK. Footage was obtained from multiple camera angles, allowing the researchers to examine both verbal and non-verbal communication in the theater teams.

Communication issues were exacerbated when alterations were made to the volume of the music. When digital tracks did not have a standard volume, turning up one popular song could lead to a subsequent song being played far too loudly.

“In the operating theaters we observed, it was usually the senior medics of the team who made the decision about background music,” says co-lead author Dr. Terhi Korkiakangas. “Without a standard practice of the team deciding together, it is left up to junior staff and nurses to speak up and challenge the decisions of senior doctors, which can be extremely daunting.”

Although the study only examined footage from two operating theaters, it does illustrate the potential problems that could be caused by the playing of music in operating theaters.

The authors state that the possibility that music could interfere with communication is seldom recognized as a potential safety hazard, and that frank discussions between surgical teams should be held – particularly taking into consideration the views of theater nurses.

Weldon concludes:

We’d like to see a more considered approach, with much more discussion or negotiation over whether music is played, the type of music, and volume, within the operating teams.”

At the start of the year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that some emotional responses to music are the same worldwide, regardless of cultural diversities.