Do Doctors Still Use Pagers? (Tradition Vs Technology)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

You might know pagers (or beeps) from their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when you’d see them on the waistbands of celebrities, businesspeople, the police and all sorts of other professionals.

But in the age of smartphones and advanced technology, do physicians really still use them?

Doctors, nurses and a variety of other healthcare professionals still regularly use pagers in their work. Despite seeming somewhat antiquated, the technology continues to provide a simple and reliable way of conveying important messages to medical staff across a hospital.

A pager may seem like a relic from the past, but there are actually several very good reasons why they continue to play a crucial role in the medical field.

In this article, I’m going to explore just what those reasons are as well looking ahead to the future of in-hospital communication.

What Is A Hospital Pager?

Pagers, also known as beepers or bleeps, are small radio-frequency (RF) communication devices that receive and display messages.

They originated in the 1950s but gained popularity in the 1990s, with doctors and other healthcare staff relying on them to ensure prompt communication regarding patients’ care and emergencies.

The primary function of a hospital pager is to notify the user of an incoming message by emitting an audible tone or vibration, followed by displaying an alphanumeric message on the screen.

When I worked in Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, you’d always carry a bleep if you were the doctor on-call, meaning you’d likely be covering a few different wards.

If a nurse on one of the wards needed you, but you weren’t on the ward at the time, they’d be able to dial a particular phone number from a hospital phone that would then ‘bleep’ you.

What this meant is the pager on your waistband would emit a loud beeping noise and then display the phone number that you’d just been bleeped from.

This meant you could then phone the nurse back from wherever you were and see what they needed help with.

How Do Pagers Work?

Pagers work on a one-way communication system, meaning they can only receive messages, not send them.

When someone sends a message to a pager, they dial the pager’s unique phone number, and the pager’s network routes the message to the pager device.

A junior doctor sat working in a clinic room
A doctor working on a hospital ward

The pager then alerts the user, often by emitting a beeping sound or vibration, and displays the message.

I’ve been made to jump more times than I care to admit by a sudden beeping from my waistband…

Messages are typically short and may include simple numeric codes indicating the urgency or nature of the situation.

The pager’s network uses a system of radio transmitters spread across a wide geographical area to broadcast messages.

This system offers a wider coverage range compared to cellular networks, allowing pagers to receive signals even in locations where mobile phones may struggle, such as inside hospitals with thick walls and numerous electronic devices.

Pagers have a reputation for having minimal failures, mainly because they rely on separate radio frequencies and separate infrastructure from cellular networks.

While the technology used certainly isn’t fancy, the fact of the matter is that they work and they work consistently.

Why Doctors Still Use Pagers

There are a number of key reasons why pagers have continued to endure in modern healthcare environments.

Why Doctors Still Use Pagers Pixel Infographic

Reliability and Durability

Pagers have proven to be highly reliable and durable devices.

Doctors need to be certain that they will receive important messages and alerts, and pagers have demonstrated their ability to deliver these messages with minimal risk of failure.

One common use of them is to broadcast cardiac arrest calls in hospitals.

These alerts ensure a team of doctors and nurses rapidly converge on a patient’s location in order to assist with resuscitation.

These messages need to reliably reach the right people otherwise seriously unwell patients would undoubtedly suffer.

Pagers are also designed to withstand the demanding environments of hospitals and clinics, ensuring that communication is never compromised.

I’ve definitely dropped my fair share of pagers and they’re forever being handed from person to person, so they need to be robust enough to not break when mishandled.

Dependability and Coverage

Pagers provide doctors with dependable and wide-reaching coverage, ensuring that they can receive messages even in areas with poor cell phone reception.

This makes them ideal for large hospital buildings which may occasionally encounter signal dead zones.

If you’ve ever worked in a hospital, you’ll know that phone reception can be pretty dodgy inside them.

The thick walls and their often huge size can mean you stand very little chance of being able to get 4G two stories below ground in the middle of a giant concrete building.

Still being able to receive messages wherever you are in the hospital is of course incredibly important for doctors working across multiple departments or wards.

You’re not going to be much help to patients of one ward if the staff can’t get in contact with you!

Good coverage is also of great importance for healthcare providers who may work in rural or remote locations where cellular networks are weak or non-existent.

Communication During Emergencies

During emergencies, it is essential for doctors to have a means of communication that is not reliant on mobile phone networks.

In the event of a disaster or crisis, cellular networks can become overwhelmed, whereas pager systems are less likely to be affected.

Pagers operate on their own dedicated frequencies, guaranteeing that messages can be exchanged without interference from other communication devices.

This ensures that doctors can continue to communicate and coordinate their efforts in such situations.

Although disaster scenarios definitely don’t occur every day, this fact is an important advantage of pagers over phones.

Affordability

Pagers are a cost-effective alternative to modern communication devices (i.e. smartphones).

With the NHS forever trying to cut back on spending, cost is always going to be an important consideration when it comes to equipment and operating procedures.

The overall expenditure for maintaining a pager system is significantly lower than implementing a full-scale smartphone-based infrastructure.

Although you can get relatively cheap smartphones, they’re much more likely to break, need updating or have their screen smashed compared to a pager.

With many healthcare providers operating under budget constraints, the low cost of pagers makes them an attractive option for ensuring continuous and reliable communication.

Battery Life

Battery life is another significant advantage of using pagers.

Unlike smartphones, which often need daily charging, pagers operate using low power consumption, enabling their batteries to last up to one or two weeks before requiring a recharge.

A doctor using a smartphone

This extended battery life ensures that doctors are less likely to be left without a means of communication in critical situations.

When the battery is running low in a pager, it’s also incredibly simple to just swap the AAA battery out for a fresh one.

This means that you’re constantly available and don’t have to leave it plugged into the wall for a couple of hours while you have to continue doing your job while it charges.

Smartphones are notorious for dying suddenly, often leading to missed messages and communication breakdowns.

Challenges And Limitations Faced By Pagers

Although they do work well, there are undoubtedly some limitations faced by pagers compared to some of the modern alternatives available.

Lack Of Advanced Features

Pagers have limited functionality compared to modern communication devices like mobile phones or smartphones.

While a pager’s one-way communication system allows doctors to receive important messages, it lacks the ability to respond with the same immediacy and efficiency as a mobile device.

This limitation can be pretty frustrating if you receive a message while on-call but have no way of answering back other than ringing the person who just bleeped you.

On the other hand, there is the argument to say that this actually allows for a more focused communication approach.

As pagers are strictly limited to message transmission and reception, they help doctors avoid unnecessary distractions often brought about by smartphones, like access to social media and non-urgent personal content.

Security And Privacy Concerns

Pagers unfortunately come with potential security and privacy risks.

Since many pagers use unencrypted radio frequencies for transmitting messages, there is a possibility of interception by unauthorised individuals.

Additionally, the messages sent to pagers often contain sensitive patient information, which poses a risk to patient privacy if intercepted.

Again, this risk does have to be balanced with the alternative- potentially storing a lot of patient data on a smartphone, for example.

The risk of security breaches and the leaking of sensitive patient information is significantly lower with pagers compared to smartphones.

In an era where privacy and data protection are of increasing concern, this factor can’t be underestimated and is undoubtedly an important consideration for hospitals deciding on what communication systems to implement.

Alternatives To Pagers And Their Adoption

Although as we’ve seen older technology can still hold its own in the fast-paced modern world, there are alternatives out there to the traditional hospital pager.

Smartphones And Messaging Applications

In recent years, smartphones and messaging applications have become widely used tools for fast and efficient communication.

They offer various features like voice calls, video calls, and real-time messaging. Some hospitals and clinics are gradually adopting these alternatives to improve communication among their healthcare professionals.

By using encrypted messaging applications on smartphones, healthcare providers can ensure that patient information is secure and accessible when needed.

However, there are challenges to adopting smartphones as a primary communication tool.

Battery life is a significant concern, as constantly used smartphones require daily charging, which may not be feasible in busy hospital settings.

Additionally, smartphones rely on cellular networks and Wi-Fi, making them vulnerable to dead zones, where a lack of service could compromise critical communication.

Hospital Communication Platforms

To address the limitations of traditional pagers and smartphones, some healthcare institutions have implemented hospital communication platforms.

These platforms provide a secure and reliable network for communication between healthcare professionals.

With features like instant messaging, file-sharing and task management, hospital communication platforms aim to streamline various aspects of patient care.

These platforms also facilitate collaboration among healthcare providers, making consultations and decision-making quicker and more efficient.

Moreover, hospital communication platforms incorporate multiple devices and methods of communication into a single system, accommodating varying preferences among healthcare professionals.

Adopting such platforms, however, faces challenges like integration with existing infrastructure, cost, and user training.

Significant financial investments can be required for implementing and maintaining these communication systems, making it difficult for some healthcare institutions to adopt them.

Final Thoughts

In summary, doctors continue to use pagers primarily due to their reliability, battery life, and security.

Pagers have proven to be more dependable in hospital settings as they can maintain a connection over long distances and penetrate the thick walls found in medical facilities.

This ensures that doctors receive crucial messages in a timely manner.

While it may seem antiquated, the pager’s enduring presence in hospitals is a direct result of its effectiveness in meeting the unique demands of the medical industry.

With its durability, dependability, and affordability, this seemingly outdated technology remains an essential tool for many healthcare professionals.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.