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Why do doctors still use pagers?


Remember the pager? Well, to this day, at many hospitals, doctors still communicate using the seemingly outdated piece of technology. Jeff Guo from our Planet Money podcast recently tried to understand why.

JEFF GUO, BYLINE: A long, long time ago - well, not that long ago - there was this device called a pager. Some people call them beepers.


SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Rapping) How does Mix-A-Lot communicate? With beepers, baby. Beepers...

GUO: Yeah, OK, pagers were huge in the '80s, but the cellphone kind of made the pager obsolete because most pagers only receive messages. You can't actually text anyone back.

CHRISTOPHER PEABODY: It's a one-way communication pathway, all right?

GUO: Dr. Christopher Peabody - people call him Toph. He's an emergency room physician at San Francisco General Hospital, and he says pagers cause all kinds of problems for doctors trying to get in touch with each other.

PEABODY: So the classic thing is, like, I never got the page, you know? Where were you? I never got the page.

GUO: And look, Toph has heard all the classic arguments for why hospitals still use pagers to this day.

PEABODY: You can throw them in the toilet. You can drop them. And they run on a double a battery - OK? - like, forever. And they're cheap. They're like the cockroaches of communication.

GUO: Also, pagers get better service. They run on different wireless networks than cell phones, so they're more reliable in an emergency. Nevertheless, a few years ago, Toph and his colleague, Dr. Mary Mercer, tried to get their fellow doctors to switch to a more modern way to communicate - try to get them to use texting. They ran a little pilot program at their hospital.

One of the nice things about texting is that you can send pictures. Mary says, during the pilot program, a patient came into the ER with this badly broken ankle, and she just texted out a snapshot. An orthopedic surgeon came down right away to take a look.

MARY MERCER: Everyone was high-fiving after that. Like...

GUO: Really?

MERCER: Yes. The emergency resident and I high-fived.

GUO: (Laughter).

MERCER: The patient high-fived. The orthopedic resident high-fived. You know - yeah.

GUO: You high-fived the patient?

MERCER: Yes. Oh, they were thrilled.

GUO: Everyone was like, wow, look at how efficient that was. But as the pilot program continued, Mary and Toph realized that texting might have one disadvantage. It might have made communication a little too easy. That was the experience of Abhinav Janghala, who was an orthopedics resident at the time. Abhinav says, with texting, he started getting interrupted way more frequently by the other doctors. Like, all the time, they'd be like...

ABHINAV JANGHALA: Oh, I can just text orthopedics real quick. Hey, it's not a consult. I just wanted to ask, like, what do you think of this?

GUO: In the end, a lot of doctors just preferred to stick with their old-fashioned pagers. And maybe there's a bigger lesson here, which is that whenever an organization adopts a new kind of technology, you're not just changing the tools that people use. You're changing how people work and changing how they work together. In this case, the doctors discovered an unexpected benefit of their old-fashioned pagers. By making communication a little harder, the pager forces people to be more succinct and also to think twice before they reach out to you.

On that note, I just want to let my editors know I'm turning off my email. If you want to reach me, you can just send me an old-fashioned letter. Just kidding - I think.

Jeff Guo, NPR News.

SUMMERS: To hear more about this story and others like it, listen to the Planet Money podcast.

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Jeff Guo
Jeff Guo (he/him) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the complicated forces that move our economy. He joined the team in 2022.