In a world where seemingly everyone has a smartphone, doctors seem to buck the trend. The pager (or beeper, as it’s sometimes known) is synonymous with hospital work, shown at the side of every trusty TV or movie doctor.
But do real doctors still use pagers in today’s world of Whatsapp, Slack, and expensive hospital wi-fi networks?
Here’s the short answer…
Yes. According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Hospital Medicine – that talks about the use of pagers in 495 U.S. clinics, 49% of responding physicians said they were regularly using them.
And because hospitals (and doctors) are relatively slow to adopt new technology, we can assume the numbers are probably somewhere still near that here in the early 2020s.
By now you’re probably wondering why. That’s something we’ll get into in this article!
Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- Why many doctors are still using pagers
- If they use them outside of America
- How doctors feel about using pagers
As a med student myself, and someone who knows several doctors who use pagers, I understand a lot of people might be surprised by how much they’re still used!
Ready to get started? Let’s go.
Doctors still use pagers in the U.S.
If you needed more proof that there’s still a ton of doctors out there still using pagers (besides all the ones I know personally), take a look at the data from a report made in 2016 by HIMSS Analytics.
In this study, based on data from 200 American hospitals, it’s claimed that “90 percent of hospitals still use pagers”.
As the doctor in the video below suggests, inertia (or a strong “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” style sentiment), is probably the biggest reason this is still the case today…
But it’s also because they’re cheap!
The history of pagers for doctors and nurses
Pagers were invented in the U.S. in the early 20s and were first adopted by the Detroit Police Department before they made their way into the nation’s hospitals. Around the late 50s, when the actual term “pager” was coined by Motorola, they began to become more popularized in healthcare.
As you can see from the video below, the core of the technology is largely unchanged. They still operate on independent wavelengths and messaging is still controlled by a central hub or switchboard.
The main pro of pagers back then was to minimize the noise pollution from messages being sent across loudspeakers.
As you’ll see below, much of this functionality is still favored by doctors and nurses today.
Why doctors still use pagers (in the 2020’s and beyond)
Although many of these reasons are largely down to debate, here are the most common arguments…
One of the unique advantages pagers have over phones is that messages can be graded.
This means doctors can discern between “fast” and “regular” beeps and tell what type of situation has arisen. In the former “fast beep” case, that means an emergency is taking place and the doctor receiving should probably start moving fast!
Despite the NHS claims’ that pagers are expensive (more on this later), they’re arguably a lot cheaper than issuing every doctor with their own hospital phone.
It also isn’t financially feasible. Especially in healthcare systems operating on a tightly controlled budget.
Especially when sending alerts to multiple team doctors in the case of a cardiac arrest etc. The signal doesn’t have to be written or recorded first.
Pagers don’t depend on cell signals. Instead, they use their own transmitters and frequencies. That ensures they have reliable coverage inside of large buildings (hospitals and clinics etc).
They also can’t go down, go unavailable or obstruct/interfere with important hospital equipment. And if they break it takes just a few seconds to assign a doctor’s number to a new device.
Many beepers can out-do even the most modern cell phone in terms of battery life. All the extra processing power that goes into smartphones, especially when used intensively somewhere like a hospital, can very quickly put them out of action.
The average pager only needs to be charged once every couple of weeks.
As mentioned before, anyone can call a cell phone and disrupt important meetings or patient consultations. For doctors who dislike the pressure of immediate response cell phones bring, pagers can be a more innocuous alternative.
They’re also extremely difficult to hack or leak data from too.
How they’re integrated into the hospital day-to-day
For those institutions and hospitals still using pagers, the video below provides a nice summary of how they might be integrated into a doctor’s workflow.
Notice how call buttons placed in certain areas of a clinic can be a faster line of communication than cellular text…
Do doctors outside the U.S. still use pagers?
Pagers may still be common in some parts of the world but they’re gradually being phased out.
In 2019, the BBC reported that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) had been told by the government to stop using pagers for communications by 2021. According to the report, at the time the NHS was still using “about 130,000 pagers” at a cost of £6.6m a year. The British government called them an “outdated, archaic technology”.
As of the time of writing, well past that 2021 mandate, we can confirm that doctors are still very much using pagers in the NHS! Our staff writer Alexandra Goncharova, a GP-trainee working in South England, talks about her use of pagers in 2021…
I still use my pager in the hospital on a daily basis. It’s probably the most reliable and trusted way to respond to calls and emergencies both on-call and during the normal day-to-day.
Interestingly, in countries like the Philippines, the situation is almost the opposite. Over there, hospitals and their doctors abandoned pagers as far back as the late ’90s. A report from Inquirer.net, published at that time, talks about the demise of the technology and how their doctors have been routinely using cell phones instead.
How do doctors use pagers?
For the doctors who do still use them, the main reason for keeping pagers around is to quickly monitor urgent situations and to know when a response is needed.
Some doctors (especially the old-school ones) may even favor them over their cell because it’s easier to separate work and personal life.
Although most hospitals do issue their doctors (and other allied health staff) work phones, some of the extra functionality offered by them may not be to every doctor’s taste!
When I’m in the OR, I put my pager by the nurse, and I leave my cell phone in my white coat. I don’t really want the nurse getting my private calls and text messages, but I do need my pager answered promptly.– U.S. surgeon
Doctors can use pagers and choose to respond without running the risk of someone annoying getting hold of their cell number and bombarding them incessantly!
Do nurses use them?
If the hospital they work at has a paging system in place, then yes, nurses will definitely be using them. Oftentimes they’re the first on the scene of a medical emergency and need to make urgent contact with doctors. Having a pager enables them to do that.
But of course, this all depends on a nurse’s place of work. As we already mentioned, not all hospital communications rely on them.
How healthcare workers feel about using pagers
Although Doctor Schmidt (in the video above) might be a fan of using pagers in his day-to-day, not every doctor feels the same way.
In that same HIMSS Analytics study carried out in 2016, many of the respondents bemoaned the use of the gadget.
Nothing would make me happier than to move away from pagers. At one time, pagers were more convenient, before people had their cell phones on them all the times; however, there are significant challenges with not using updated technology, such as not having a centralized directory, contacts and call schedules.
Elsewhere, other physicians complain about the pagers one-way system and its lack of context. For them, a beeper’s inability to allow you to provide feedback, ask questions, and better understand the needs of patients, can be a particular nuisance!
Many doctors are still using pagers, both throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. For many hospitals, pagers provide a cheap and easy solution for doctors to respond to clinical emergencies. Also, some doctors like the fact that, unlike a cell phone, they can choose how best to respond to a pager’s inevitable bleeps.
Despite all that, however, there is an active push to phase out the pager and replace it with the modern-day multi-purpose cell phone.
For the time being though, that transition is moving slowly.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.