A beeping pager has long been a mainstay of life in British hospitals, but the NHS could save £2.7m a year if it gave up its allegiance to the technology.
A report by telecoms consultancy CommonTime said 130,000 pagers were in use in the NHS, mainly in acute hospitals, making it the largest user of the technology in the world.
Pagers reached peak popularity in 1994 with 61m users across the globe, but since then their popularity has waned, as mobile phones have taken over. There are now believed to be fewer than 1m users worldwide, though the NHS spends £6.6m on them each year.
Vodafone and Capita run the last two wide-area paging services in the UK, but Vodafone announced in May that it will shut down its business in 2018. This was after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) threatened to investigate Vodafone’s plan to sell its paging operation, which includes around 1,000 diehard users, to Capita. The CMA was concerned prices could rise, but it looks like Capita will still be the last man standing.
Pagers are respected in the health service for their dependency. They use radio frequencies instead of mobile or internet networks and have a long battery life. Geoff Hall, chief clinical intelligence officer at Leeds Cancer Centre, said: “Pagers seem like old technology, but they still exist for their inherent high levels of resilience. They are simple to use, ie, 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.”
However, technologies such as WhatsApp, which provides a secure messaging network, offer an alternative. During the WannaCry cyber attack in May, clinicians turned to WhatsApp. “During the crisis, up to 500 patients a day were diagnosed from X-ray images sent on the app,” said Commontime’s report.
“Based on the current market price, our research indicates that the NHS could save up to £2,718,009 per year – or over £10m across four years – by replacing pagers with smartphone-based applications.”
Johan Waktare, director of health infomatics consultancy ITEH, said: “The key thing is about pager technology is that there is always a strong case for having a resilient way of being able to contact people, classically for crash alerts. But, for many of the other tasks that pager technology is used for, they’re not very efficient and clinical time is wasted.”
The report said: “In the era of austerity and growing financial pressure, NHS trusts must make decisions which result in long-term improvements in efficiency and cost savings balanced with short-term needs.
“Modernising communication technology to generate positive patient outcomes is in an investment that must be made. Pagers cannot continue to exist in the NHS anymore.”
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