For one thing, hospitals can be dead zones for cell service—and it’s no accident. In some areas, the walls are built to keep X-rays from penetrating, but those heavy-duty designs also make it hard for a cell phone signal to make it through, says board-certified pediatrician Jarret Patton, MD, FAAP, founder of DoctorJarret. Pagers, on the other hand, have an easier time getting through. But even outside hospital walls, this is why smartphones suddenly get so slow.
Pagers don’t have that same problem though. Their signals are sent as very high frequency radio signals that get a range similar to an FM radio broadcast. Plus, unlike cell signals, which only go to the nearest cell tower, pages send to multiple satellites. “This redundancy increases reliability of the message getting through because if one tower is down, the others are usually working,” says Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, internist at California Pacific Medical Center.
It’s possible to buy a cell phone signal booster for better reception, but industrial-level boosters can cost thousands of dollars each. “It is a price many hospitals are unwilling to pay,” says Dr. Patton. “This leaves the job to a pager.”
That level of reliability is particularly important during a major emergency, says Dr. Ungerleider. During natural disasters, for instance, cell services can get clogged up and make it hard for most people to send a message. A pager would make it way more likely for those messages to actually get through.
During emergencies, hospital staff might also need to reach hundreds of people at the same time. Instead of creating massive group texts, pagers can easily send a message to hundreds of people at the same time, says Dr. Ungerleider. (For your personal texting habits, follow this group texting etiquette to avoid annoying everyone.)
Another important factor in an emergency? Battery life. Pagers only need to be charged every week or two, which makes them way less likely to lose battery when doctors need them. “They don’t rely on being charged like a cell phone,” says Dr. Ungerleider. (If your phone keeps dying, avoid these things that kill a cell phone’s battery.)
But technical challenges aren’t the only issues; cell phones also would leave more room for security breaches. While it would be easy to send confidential patient information over a text, pagers don’t leave that possibility open. “They send only numeric messages or basic text messages,” says Dr. Patton. “This way no confidential information can get in the wrong hands as could happen with a cell phone.” (Find out how to keep hackers away from your own phone.)
Of course, pagers do have their downsides, like the clunkiness of only being able to receive a message without replying. That’s why some hospitals are moving toward HIPAA-compliant apps that send secure messages.
But despite the potential risks during major emergencies, Dr. Ungerleider says it would be more efficient when doctors get messages when they’re with another patient. “One-way pager communications are frustrating because much of the time we receive text page messages that require a simple answer but we then have to stop what we’re doing … to call them back,” she says. Only time will tell if hospitals stick to the tried-and-true or branch out to new technology.
Wondering about other weird hospital quirks? Find out why doctors have such bad handwriting.