Clinicians in healthcare settings typically have information coming at them from all directions, at all times, and often with little distinction as to the level of urgency. It makes for inefficiency and confusion for today’s busy doctor.
In today’s hospital setting, that disjointed communication creates dissonance and distraction. Even though the world has gravitated to the ubiquitous use of smartphones, that’s not the dominant form of connection for physicians. The vast majority of hospitals still depend on paging systems to quickly reach doctors as they circulate through a facility and even outside it.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine in 2017 found that hospitals provided pagers to 80 percent of hospital-based clinicians, and more than half of all physicians in the survey reported that they received patient care-related communication most commonly by pager. Other information sources reported in the study included unsecured standard text messaging (53 percent of clinicians), and 27 percent used a secure messaging application.
While paging systems seem like a throwback form of technology, they have a history of providing reliable connections between clinicians in hospital settings. They operate on a frequency that is less prone to interference, and they travel significantly farther than messages traveling on cellular networks or Wi-Fi. That means pager signals reach hospital areas that are likely to have bad reception, such as radiology departments or basements. In addition, pager signals are not susceptible to surges in demand or network overload situations, which may occur during emergencies.
However, many hospitals are taking steps to resolve some of these issues. For example, a variety of technologies, such as repeaters, range extenders, or boosters, can improve coverage to challenge areas for both Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
Even so, pagers – a technology that was patented in 1949 and first used in New York City’s Jewish Hospital – are now a duplicative device that does not match the capability of the smartphones that physicians rely on. Many report that it’s frustrating to have to carry a separate paging device that does not fully meet their communication needs.
Pagers don’t work like physicians need them to. For example, it’s frustrating to receive a page, then return the call as requested, only to find that the doctor or nurse who initiated the page is no longer on duty or otherwise inaccessible. That typically requires a message to voicemail or further calls to find out how to reach the other clinician. Communication that could be handled in two minutes with a smartphone could take as much as half an hour to complete with a pager-based system. And that interferes with other work that a clinician should be accomplishing during hospital rounds.
Here’s one real-life example from a surgeon at a major Boston-area hospital. The doctor needed to reach a radiology technologist after regular work hours to get post-surgery X-ray images of a patient uploaded to another EHR system. The physician eventually calls the technologist’s pager number, but there are no instructions for how to ensure the message was left or even if the page went through. The physician calls a nurse to have her call the technologist’s page number on his behalf, but still has no assurance that the call went through. Finally, the technologist returned the call after 35 minutes and multiple phone calls.
Paging systems also have security shortcomings. Many pagers are not fully secure, exposing messages sent over a system to anyone who can tap into the frequency being used. As a result, many pagers and pager messaging systems are not HIPAA compliant, exposing hospitals to potential liability or even hacking or service attacks that could impact communications.
To improve efficiency and security, healthcare organizations need to look to gravitate toward an all-encompassing medical communications system that captures all pager-like messages and seamlessly incorporates them into a collaboration platform that does not rely on store-and-forward functionality.
Over recent years, clinicians have come to accept and widely use smartphones as a form factor, and their multi-tasking capability also enables clinicians to do more than one task – for example, communicate via text messages, consult an electronic health records system and engage in verbal communication with one or more clinicians.
While the utility of the pager network remains and pager systems are likely to stay in use for the foreseeable future, it is important for healthcare systems to keep the technology but get away from the pager form factor. Transforming the system won’t get rid of pagers completely but will enable physicians to get pager messages in a different way, connecting the current highly accessible pager network directly to a medical professional’s smartphone.
Such a strategy combines the ease of use and convenience of a smartphone with the advantages of a pager network.
About Fred Lizza
Fred Lizza is CEO of Statum Systems , a developer of advanced mobile collaboration platforms geared to caregivers. He was previously CEO of StrategicClaim, an insurance claims platform, and Freestyle Solutions, an e-commerce leader. Fred earned his MBA from Harvard University.