Local Hospital Tests Software Allowing Doctors to Ditch Pagers

Apr 12, 2012

Technology has transformed health care in recent times – supplying everything from sophisticated imaging machines to electronic medical records. When it comes to communications, though, the medical field continues to rely on a device many might consider archaic – the pager. But doctors may soon ditch their trusty old beepers, at least at one Milwaukee-area hospital. As WUWM’s Erin Toner reports, it’s testing a new system in hopes of improving patient care.

Dr. Sam Zaidat has begun using his smartphone to respond to pages, as part of a pilot project at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Credit Erin Toner

The pager reached its pinnacle more than two decades ago. The small, rectangular device was the “it” accessory for Wall Street bankers and drug dealers alike. But the typical pager is a simple one-way device – it only receives text messages or phone numbers. So, we’ve all moved on to smartphones, right?

Well, not everyone.

We’re in the emergency room at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The staff treats about 60,000 patients a year, so doctors’ and nurses’ pagers beep constantly. Dr. Dan DeBehnke is vice chair of emergency medicine. He calls paging essential to providing good care – because it alerts physicians to patients’ changing conditions. But the system can be cumbersome.

DeBehnke describes a “Batman belt” of devices most department doctors wear.

“Everybody has a trauma and ambulance pager. I then have a personal pager, communication and administrative pager, a smartphone then for personal issues and email and things like that,” DeBehnke says.

Many physicians also tote around iPads or laptops. So, in an attempt to de-clutter doctors and bring their communications technology on par with the rest of society, Froedtert is moving toward pager elimination. The hospital recently installed new software on a few hundred physicians’ smartphones, including DeBehnke’s.

“That just tells me I have a new message.”

He says traditional pagers require doctors to find a phone to coordinate the patient’s care, potentially delaying treatment. DeBehnke says the new smartphone software allows users to receive alerts and respond immediately.

“I open the message and then I can either acknowledge receipt just with a thumps up sign or I can actually text back and say, ‘got it,’ or give any other type of information that I want to give,” DeBehnke says.

Or, he can use the phone to call the provider back. Physicians at Froedtert say it’s a natural transition – they’re already equipped with smartphones and iPads to look up drugs and diseases, and chart patient information.

Dr. Sam Zaidat is a neurologist and stroke specialist and gets paged a lot.

“Nowadays, everyone has smartphones around. You use it so frequently. It’s with you on round, with you (with) patients, with you in the clinic all the time,” Zaidat says.

Zaidat says the new system is already speeding up rounds, now that he does not have to constantly leave patients’ bedsides to place phone calls.

Some doctors, however, have expressed concerns about abandoning pagers, such as, what if a phone gets into the wrong hands - will patient information be compromised?

ER Dr. Dan DeBehnke says, no, because the phones are password protected, and if one is missing, the owner can go online to wipe it clean. Traditional pagers have no lock screen.

Mike Hebrank expects all medical centers to eventually switch. He’s vice president of the University Health System Consortium. It represents academic medical centers.

“I think we might have seen more uptake of some of the technologies that we’re discussing here if people weren’t so distracted and frankly a little bit overwhelmed by these federally mandated efforts that they’ve got to do,” Hebrank says.

Those efforts include transferring medical records from paper to computer. Officials at Froedtert and the Medical College say if all goes well in their pilot phase, they will consider switching their communications system completely to smartphones. If so, the hospital would be one of the first in the country to abandon pagers.