Stuck in the '90s: Why do physicians still page?

Once a tech-status symbol, the pager is now a tech-dinosaur. In fact, hospitals are some of the last holdouts where the devices can still be found in common use, Allison Bond, MD, a resident physician at Massachusetts GeneralHospital in Boston, wrote in a column for Slate.

"Although the pager seems out of date, doctors often take perverse pride in carrying one, at least at first," Dr. Bond wrote. "I still remember the excitement and anticipation of receiving my first pager as a medical student. It meant the years spent hunched over a textbook were over; I was entering the fray of patient care. That feeling quickly turned to irritation as I became painfully aware of pagers' shortcomings."

Those shortcomings span from the obnoxious ring of the pager to the fickle way it demands an immediate response from its wearer around the clock and gives essentially nothing in return, Dr. Bond wrote. Additionally, the devices don't allow for two-way communication. The message-receiver must rely on whatever brief information they're sent to get an idea of what is being asked, and then they must locate a landline to call and locate the sender to deliver a response. This process can be time-consuming and pulls physicians away from patients.

"This inconvenience really adds up," Dr. Bond wrote. "A colleague once tallied the number of pages he received during a single 12-hour overnight shift. He arrived at nearly 90 messages, or an average of one every eight minutes, beeping at him as he admitted new patients and tried to take care of old ones. The time we lose in this constant back and forth between returning pages and doing other work can be a real drain."

But there's some sense to why they persist in healthcare. The pager's battery life can last for weeks, meaning they can function even during a power outage, and their signal reception is significantly better than that of a cell phone, enabling the page to more reliably arrive in a timely manner not dependent on where a physician might be in a facility.

Upgrading from the antiquated-but-inexpensive devices also has a cost-prohibitive factor, Dr. Bond wrote, citing a pilot program implemented by a New York-based hospital that outfitted physicians with 16 smartphones to the tune of more than $10,000. Another solution is hospital-directed phone systems designed for use in healthcare, which are efficient and have privacy functionality built in beyond a standard smartphone. However, the pager still manages to trump these systems in some respects, according to Dr. Bond.

"For all its inconveniences, a pager still offers benefits that have yet to be replicated by more modern forms of communication," she wrote. "It provides an alert that can't be ignored and a reliability that is crucial in the health care setting. And carrying a pager has symbolic value, too: It connects today's doctors with those from the past and represents the notion that we'll always be available to take care of our patients."

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