Providers, don't throw away your pager just yet

Once seen as must-have gadgets in the 1980s, pagers have since been replaced by cell phones and other mobile devices with the exception of one important market segment: the healthcare industry. Healthcare professionals stubbornly cling to their pagers, resisting the overwhelming trend in the rest of society to send them to the dustbin of technology history.   

Despite the widespread use of smartphones by physicians, pagers still hold a valued place in healthcare. According to one estimate, more than 90 percent of hospitals use pagers. At the mHealth Summit earlier this month, I spoke with Sean Moshir, CEO of CellTrust, a company that offers a pager replacement solution, who estimated that there are 3.5 million legacy pagers being used in the healthcare environment.

So, with smartphone-based messaging services available to doctors, nurses, and medical staff, why do they continue to rely on pagers? In a nutshell, pagers are simple and reliable.The reliability of smartphones and the cellular networks they run on just can't be trusted when it comes to the critical messaging and alerts that healthcare professionals must receive in order for them to do their jobs effectively and care for their patients.

Paging technology is alive and well in 2012 because of dead zones and other vulnerabilities that are common place with cellular technology. Cell signals can get weakened or interrupted by physical obstacles such as buildings. However, the narrow-band signals of paging networks, on average, are seven times stronger than cellular signals, so healthcare professionals in a hospital can reliably receive pager messages wherever they are located in a building, even in an elevator or the basement.

Cell signals for calls and data travel via phone company landlines to a cell tower and then get handed off from tower to tower. In contrast, paging signals are beamed to a satellite and then to all towers in the local network nearest the destination pager, receiving strong and redundant signals.

Group messaging also is more efficient with pagers. Texting to a group on a cell network gets cued up and delivered to one individual at a time, whereas paging messages are simulcast for instant delivery to all recipients.

Recent experiences with severe weather, such as Hurricane Sandy, demonstrate the weakness of point-to-point cell networks; when one or more towers lose power or go down, it can create coverage gaps. However, with the high power and overlap of paging networks' redundant broadcast signals, losing a tower or two has little or no effect on critical messaging.

In the case of pagers, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. As a result, we can expect pagers to coexist with smartphones in healthcare for some time to come. My advice: don't throw away your pager just yet. - Greg  @Slabodkin