Pager inversus? Beeper Obliterans?

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There was a time when the last major industries using a pager were: drug runners and physicians. But then, drug runners switched to disposable, cash-purchased “burner” phones. Apparently, Breaking Bad and The Wire taught us about this. Having seen neither show (yet: saving up to “power-disk” them some day), I’m still faithfully carrying my pager around.

Why are physicians the last ones? I’d have to agree with other articles that reliability (signal penetrates buildings where cell signal might not), flexibility (don’t have to give out personal cell number, and don’t ‘have to’ respond to a page), low maintenance (change the AA battery once a month, so what if hospital power goes out), and low cost ($10 per month or less) are the main drivers. That, and massive inertia.

I’ve been in healthcare since 1985, and in that time, I remember wearing audio pagers (bee-doo-bee-doo! *static* Doctor, please call *static* 347 *static* Come QUICK! *static*). Sigh. What was the full phone number? Who? Where?

I’ve seen some services try to transition to texting (Please come tell Mr. Jones in 307 that he is HIV positive). Sigh. What was that thing about privacy? Did you really just tell AT&T about Mr. Jones?

I’ve seen other physicians miss critical messages because texting did not work in certain internal locations in hospitals. Gives a new meaning to “dead zones.”

With a growing number of hospitals installing internal cell-signal repeaters, it is possible that pagers are finally on their way out. I will miss them, when they’re gone. They did inspire an entire range of emotions over my career.
PRIDE: Hey! You mean medical students get to wear one?!
FEAR: Oh, man, this thing never stops. Can I just eat/pee/poop without being disturbed?
JOY: Finally, I have graduated residency and I am TURNING THIS DAMN THING OFF!
RESIGNATION: Oh, I have to wear one as an attending physician?
HOPE: Maybe, just maybe we can get rid of it and use our anticipated secure texting system

Finally, I recall my favorite research article, published in JAMA in 1992: BEEPER OBLITERANS. It references the older style “audio” pagers with a small “test” button on the top surface that was easy to accidentally “set off.” I won’t ruin it; you have to read it:


Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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