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Anatomy of a beep: A medical device giant and an avant-garde musician set out to redesign a heart monitor’s chirps

As deals struck by health care behemoths go, this was one of the stranger ones. On one side, you had a medical device giant. On the other, you had an…

WASHINGTON — As deals struck by health care behemoths go, this was one of the stranger ones. On one side, you had a medical device giant, with a phalanx of PR professionals carefully guarding the company’s image. On the other, you had a consultant who didn’t sound much like a consultant:

“I am synthetic life form ‘Yoko K.,’ assembled in the US with components made in Japan,” one of her websites explained. “I am designed to assume the role of an ‘electronic musician.’ I am one of many secret agents sent to this time to plant magical thinking in people through the use of ‘pre-22nd century nostalgia Mars pop music.’”

In other words, Yoko K. Sen is an ambient electronic musician, born in Japan but transplanted to the United States, where she’s layered her breathy, machine-modulated vocals over ethereal blooms of synth at galleries, in concert halls, and on award-winning albums. In recent years, though, she’s created a new, more corporate niche for herself: revamping the soundscape in hospitals. Medtronic had hired her, late in 2017, for a related project, to help design the beeps patients would hear from their cardiac monitors at home.

The beginning of one of Sen’s compositions, called “Lou.” 

We live in an era of constant redesigns, and health care — with its cheerless institutional bent and vomit-like color palette — has proven especially ripe for reimagining. Fashion icons have taken on the hospital gown. Architects have gone after the hospital room, and celebrity chefs have barged into the cafeteria. One bigwig San Francisco designer even tried to rebrand death. You name it, there’s probably someone out there working to give it a makeover. And sometimes, these aesthetic changes might just save lives. As the New York Times reported in 2014, when patients moved into homier hospital rooms as a test, they not only felt more comfortable but also requested less pain medication.

Behind all of these initiatives is the idea of refocusing health care on the patient. To do that, the thinking goes, you often need to fix problems so glaring they’re easy to overlook. Medical sound is a perfect example. What, in the 21st century, could be more ubiquitous than a beep? We’re so surrounded by electronic. So redesigning those chimes requires a delicate balance: Attention-getting but not startling, easy to differentiate but simple enough to learn.

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