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Feature Hospital Technology

Slow death of the bleep: why hospital pagers won’t die

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 31 March 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n684
  1. Jo Best, freelance writer
  1. London, UK

Despite promises that pagers would be gone by the end of 2021, hospitals look set to retain them for critical situations at least, Jo Best reports

Pagers have been a staple of hospital communications for decades, but in 2019 the English health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that NHS trusts would phase out bleeps for non-emergency communications by the end of 2021.1 Soon after, the Conservative MP Alan Mak introduced a bill in parliament to end the use of fax machines and pagers in the NHS,2 saying the devices have “many limitations,” and “there is now simply no good reason why pagers should still be used.”

Yet persist they do. The technology is over 50 years old, and a report based on freedom of information requests to NHS trusts in 2017 estimated that around 130 000 pagers were still in use, at a cost of £6.6m (€8m; $9m) a year.3

But pagers usually offer only one-to-one messaging for basic tasks such as relaying the sender’s number for the recipient to call back. Typically, they can’t convey the name of the contact, the nature of the request, or the urgency. Because staff bleep numbers may not be held in a central directory or may change, it’s not always easy for clinicians to contact the person they need when they need them.

We now have smartphones

“Pagers are a slightly obsolete technology. The world has moved on,” says Bola Rotibi, research director at the technology analysts CCS Insight. Healthcare practitioners now have smartphones and need communication tools that are “much more capable of doing richer, contextual, and relevant communication. The environment that pagers were designed for no longer exists, partly because we have all become …

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