On Monday 4th September, CommonTime released the results of research into the usage of and attitudes towards paging systems in the NHS. Often criticised byclinical staff for their inefficiency, pagers have survived due to their high levels of resilience and durability – however, it is difficult to tell just how prevalent they still are. That’s what the report, entitled Paging in the NHS: The Cost of Ageing Comms Channels in Healthcare aimed to find out.

The last formal research into the market was undertaken over 10 years ago by Frost and Sullivan. The report, then a yearly occurrence, was discontinued in 2006. Without an overview of the market for over a decade, and one of the UK’s only two paging networks preparing to exit the market – we wanted to understand just how reliant on pagers the NHS (and wider healthcare industry were).

Though we expected to find a strong connection between the NHS and the UK’s remaining pager networks – the exact results still came as a surprise. By submitting Freedom of Information requests to 141 Trusts, and working with our commercial partners, we discovered that the NHS accounts for approximately 93% of all pagers in the UK, at an annual cost of £6.6 million. Further, direct savings of £2.7 million could be realised per year by utilising smartphone based alternatives – which also provide a raft of other efficiency benefits such as enabling two-way communication and intelligent workflows.

After publication, these results were widely reported in a number of national publications including The TimesThe Independent and The Guardian– stimulating discussion on the relevance of pagers in the 21st century and the current state of communication channels within the NHS.

Reaction to the Report

Despite the age of such systems, reaction to the report has been largely divided, highlighting that the use of pagers in healthcare is still a hotly contested topic. Broadly, there are two points of view on the issue, which can be summed up by healthcare IT leaders quoted in the report.

Rowan Pritchard Jones (CCIO at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust) said, “Pagers represent 20th Century technology and are a blunt instrument for communication. Apart from a ‘fast bleep’ doctors have no sense of the urgency or priority of a call, end up writing down messages that can be lost, and often find a telephone number engaged when they do answer it. There has to be a more refined, accountable reliable way to communicate.”

However,  Geoff Hall (CCIO & Associate Medical Director of Infomatics at Leeds Cancer Centre) said, “Pagers seem like old technology, but they still exist purely for their inherently high levels of resilience. They are simple to use i.e. calls can be pushed out by ringing one number, there is an audit trail, the device is easy to carry, and the battery lasts months, not hours. They do only one task, but they do it well. They provide a last line of defence.”

Ultimately, the debate boils down to the risk associated with replacing an existing, proven system with newer technology that may provide great benefits, but also new challenges. As with any complex IT question, there is no easy or universal answer. Whether or not a Trust should replace pagers with smartphone based alternatives depends on factors such as the availability of WiFi or mobile signal throughout the site, employee culture and device management policies.

But as Vodafone prepare to exit the market, leaving only one paging network in the UK, we would encourage all NHS Trusts to use this opportunity to see whether upgrading to an intelligent smartphone based communication channel is right for them. Our experts are on hand to provide honest and fair advice on the best route forward and whether hospital sites are ready to upgrade to an Intelligent Paging system.

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