Speech understanding using surgical masks: A problem in health care?


Background: Successful communication is necessary in health-care environments. Yet the presence of noise in hospitals, operating rooms, and dental offices may have a deleterious effect on health-care personnel and patients understanding messages accurately. The presence of a surgical mask and hearing loss may further affect speech perception. Purpose: To evaluate whether a surgical mask had an effect on speech understanding for listeners with normal hearing and hearing impairment when speech stimuli were administered in the presence or absence of dental office noise. Research Design: Participants were assigned to one of two groups based on hearing sensitivity in this quasi-experimental, cross-sectional study. Study Sample: A total of 31 adults participated in this study (1 talker, 15 listeners with normal hearing, and 15 with hearing impairment). The normal hearing group had thresholds of 25 dB HL or better at the octave frequencies from 250 through 8000 Hz while the hearing loss group had varying degrees and configurations of hearing loss with thresholds equal to or poorer than 25 dB HL for the same octave frequencies. Data Collection and Analysis: Selected lists from the Connected Speech Test (CST) were digitally recorded with and without a surgical mask present and then presented to the listeners in four conditions: without a mask in quiet, without a mask in noise, with a mask in quiet, and with a mask in noise. Results: A significant difference was found in the spectral analyses of the speech stimuli with and without the mask. The presence of a surgical mask, however, did not have a detrimental effect on speech understanding in either the normal-hearing or hearing-impaired groups. The dental office noise did have a significant effect on speech understanding for both groups. Conclusions: These findings suggest that the presence of a surgical mask did not negatively affect speech understanding. However, the presence of noise did have a deleterious effect on speech perception and warrants further attention in health-care environments.

Publication Title

Journal of the American Academy of Audiology