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Only In the Movies

August 30, 2010
by Bobbie Byrne
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Cell Phone Store Clerk: “Sure, what are you interested in…?”

<BEEP BEEP BEEP!>

IT Director reaches for her pager clipped on her belt

Cell Phone Store Clerk: “Wait! Is that a pager?!! Can I see it? I have never actually seen one of those before. I mean, other than in the movies of course!”

<FADE OUT>

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Are we old, or is our technology becoming so obsolete that 20-somethings in the mall only know it from the movies? I know that my colleague Ann Malinowski felt like she was in the twilight zone, when the above happened to her.

For me as a 40-something, pagers really are the personal technology device of my early medical career. As medical students, we had to share the pager. It was about six inches long and three inches wide, and boy, was it heavy! But we were proud to carry it. Ann talks about her younger nurse days when an individual’s importance in the hospital was signaled by the number of pagers they were carrying—the code-blue pager, the transport pager ,etc. Outside the hospital, a pager clipped to a belt was a sign of being a physician; nobody else carried one.

I was thrilled when I received my very own, much slimmer, pager, on my first day of internship, not knowing it would become my albatross. Some of the prestige had already faded by that time, as drug dealers had also started to carry pagers. In fact, I believe there were a few cryptic late night pages that came to me from the pay phone on the corner, and not from the nurse on the floor. These were only numeric pagers, so there was no way to determine the importance of the page—it could be a really sick patient or a really silly question—so I dutifully answered each page promptly.

The advent of the alpha-numeric pager, as well as becoming an attending, changed that. I could start to triage who to call back immediately and who to ignore, at least until they paged me again.

Of course, now there are infinite options. Pages can be translated to texts, sent to cell phones or to a completely different covering provider. Pages can be routed to an office phone 8 AM-6 PM, to a cell phone 6-8 PM, and to a home phone after 8 PM. The pager is no longer the sole physician contact device, but rather, one of many mechanisms by which to reach physicians. With so many options, isn’t it strange that we still have problems getting a physician on the phone…?

So, back to my shocked friend Ann in the cell phone store. In IT, we are all used to be accustomed to being stopped by strangers because of the gadgets we carried. Typically, it is because these gadgets were new and cool, not because they were never-before-seen technology dinosaurs. Consumer products have soared, and we have still been paging each other, not realizing how much the world has moved beyond. I think we are holding on to a device that is probably obsolete. How like medicine to do this!

I don’t think even drug dealers carry pagers anymore, except maybe in the movies.

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Comments

Bobbie,
Again, I can relate. During my residency, we had the pagers that worked like SkyTel phone - there was an un-interruptable audio message. All of the residents and techs carried them. They were used both for one-way messaging as well as broadcasting cardiac arrest codes.

When I started in the vendor world, less than a decade later, we had two-way, nationwide text pagers. The hospital still had those one-way walky-talkies.

Healthcare is catching up, of course. But the tax code isn't. A friend in Kaiser has to carry a hospital phone in addition to his personal one. Kaiser is actually happy to subsidize the personal calls on a single phone. The IRS, however, needs to tax that as income, making the logistics untenable. I wish it was this way "only in the movies."

Bobbie Byrne

Vice President for Health Information Technology at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill

Bobbie Byrne M.D. writes about being a community hospital CIO all the while trying to figure out...