Cell phones are replacing pagers in pediatric hospitals

Many physicians and residents are using their own cell phones to page colleagues, raising privacy concerns.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Ah, pagers -- still beloved by a wide range of users, from physicians to restaurant hostesses to bird watchers to drug dealers.

More than half the physicians surveyed say they've sent or received work-related text messages. CNET

And given the simple telecommunication tech has been around for more than half a century, it should come as no surprise that it is gradually being replaced -- at least in hospital settings -- by cell phones.

That's according to an electronic survey administered by researchers out of the University of Kansas and presented this week at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.

Of the 106 pediatric hospital physicians surveyed, 96 percent say they text and 90 percent say they use a smartphone, with 57 percent of the physicians reporting they've sent or received work-related text messages and 49 percent even when they weren't working or on call. (These figures may not be representative of all pediatric physicians given the majority surveyed have been in practice less than 10 years, but it still indicates a general trend toward cell phone use in a hospital setting.)

Researchers report that talking face-to-face and by telephone remain the most common methods of communication (both at 92 percent), and while only 27 percent of respondents say they actually prefer texting when it comes to brief communications, even fewer (23 percent) prefer a hospital pager, and fewer than that (21 percent) prefer talking face-to-face.

The underlying issue with this shift toward texting over paging is that few of the physicians said their hospital had Health Insurance Portability and Protection Act (HIPPA)-encrypted software for texting, let alone an actual policy regarding texting at the hospital.

Cell phones in hospitals pose numerous potential privacy breaches, be it taking photos of patients or routinely texting them about a range of health issues, including extremely personal ones such as drug use and sex.

And with more respondents (41 percent) of this survey using their personal phones to text rather than hospital-assigned phones (18 percent), lawsuits may be inevitable, particularly if unencrypted messages include such detailed information as patients' names.

"We are using text messaging more and more to communicate with other physicians, residents, and even to transfer a patient to a different unit," abstract author Stephanie Kuhlmann said in a news release. "We've had such a rapid increase in cell phone use, and I'm not sure that hospitals have caught up by putting in place related processes and protocols."