Seven years ago, a medical student asked me why doctors still used pagers. I blogged about the reasons pagers were favored such as excellent reception in all parts of the hospital including radiology, phone calls being more intrusive than a page, and group pages for events like codes were impossible via cell phone.

I was criticized by several people who commented on the post and on Twitter. I was called a Luddite, and someone said, “Only pimps and plumbers still use pagers!”

Last week I decided to poll my Twitter followers to see what the current state-of-the-art is.

The results are consistent with a 2017 survey of medical hospitalists which found 49% of respondents user pagers as their primary means of patient care related communication.

Here are some of my favorite comments accompanying the poll. Many people still like pagers.

@StillmanMD: Because they are awesome. Because they allow me to keep work and my life separate. Big deal for combating burn out. Plus [not having] the privacy nightmare of patient data in my pocket.

@DrMikeBDS: Because unlike mobile phones the battery lasts forever and you don’t have to answer them until you want to.

@KDyamenahalli:
1. Have a long battery life and the battery can be swapped out in 5 sec (essential on trauma call).
2. Allow separation of work and personal communication.
3. Use low frequency transmission that’s much less location-dependent.
4. Are inexpensive and physically durable.

@LVSelbs: Agree 1000000000% with @KDyamenahalli. I can leave my pager at home whenever I’m not working and effectively separate Luke from Dr. Selby (until people call my phone).

@ferbuleh: I agree with this, I have come back from vacation and found people had paged me on my time being away. I really didn’t want to get those on my cell phone during a fun trip.

@gpsforthebrain: Another thing I’ve noticed lately: if I’m with a patient in clinic and the phone buzzes, I feel very awkward about pulling it out of pocket and checking it. “It’s work-related, really!” Pager was obvious interruption that they understood. I must set phone to make pager noise.

@ottowaheartrob: I miss it. Our pager’s radio signal could punch through to any part of our campus (including ORs which were in the basement). You could ignore it (while running a code) and it would happily chirp away q 1 minute to remind you. Now we have a WiFi enabled system. Not the same.

@doctorwise: Hope they never take it away from me. It works everywhere, even in elevator shafts and basements, its tone is loud and unmistakable, and an AA battery lasts months. I never miss pages. Sometimes low tech is the best tech.

Some don’t.

@JaroslawMichal3: Haven’t used the dinosaur for years now. Text, page, what’s the difference? At least you can gauge how urgent it is from the text and time your response. Texting back on simple issues saves a phone call. Additional perk: nurses love it.

@drhjefferson: All National Health Service [NHS] hospitals are completely dependent on [pagers].

@dermotor: Not quite true. We are literally in the final stages of removing bleeps*/pagers in a matter of a few weeks with secure messaging using @MedicBleep [*Bleep is UK for beep].

@doctorwibble: Also, no hunting for a phone when you need to ring someone. [Really? Doesn’t everyone carry a cell phone these days?] Useful numbers stored in it. No bleeping and waiting for a call back.

Despite the many favorable comments, pagers may be on the way to extinction. Tokyo Telemessage, the only company supporting pagers in Japan, has announced it would discontinue the service in September 2019. From a high of 1,200,000 subscribers in 1996, fewer than 1500 Japanese are using pagers today.

A few months ago, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock proposed doing away with pagers in the NHS. With approximately 130,000 devices, the NHS is responsible for about 10% of global pager use.

But pagers are hard to kill. I think I’ll wait a few years and take another poll.

 

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last 8 years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 3,000,000 page views, and he has over 19,000 followers on Twitter