Pagers: Is banning more NHS tech really the right thing to do?

Joost Bruggeman, a former doctor and surgeon and co-founder of Siilo, discusses why an outright ban of pagers is problematic for the NHS – discussing aspects such as funding and a plan of action. 

However good it looks spread across the centre-fold of the Sunday Telegraph, banning more stalwart NHS technology – without a plan, general guidance or additional funding – is short-sighted, to say the least. Indeed, the pager ban is but one of a series of headline-grabbing announcements made over the last six months – putting a halt to technologies that have been ingrained in the NHS for decades.

The pager is outdated, no doubt. But we seem to be forgetting that WhatsApp-style messaging solutions were never intended to replace pagers – they were intended to replace WhatsApp. And there are many good reasons why the pager should continue to be used, albeit in a limited capacity.

After all, pagers have longer battery lives than mobile phones and – even without Wi-Fi or mobile signal – the pager works by running on dedicated radio-frequency networks, which are more reliable and proven to better penetrate thick hospital walls.

Admittedly, this is acknowledged by the Department of Health and Social Care who say: “NHS trusts will be allowed to keep some pagers for emergency situations, such as when Wi-Fi fails or when other forms of communication are unavailable”. But here too lies the problem: the ban of pagers has left many people frustrated and questioning why the government has the right to define what constitutes an ‘emergency’ over the people actually working on the frontline of care?

Certainly, thinking back to my time as a surgeon – despite becoming increasingly reliant on my mobile to communicate low-risk alerts, share detailed patient information and overcome the inefficient barriers within clinical teams or across organisational boundaries – all the while, I still relied on my pager. It was an invaluable tool in my armoury, and not one that I wanted to lose (or indeed have taken).

Further to this, one of the most frustrating things about Hancock’s pager purge is that no additional funding has been promised to help implement it. But replacing pagers – whether it be with a secure, specialist messaging application or with an alternative method of communication – is not simply a matter of swapping one piece of technology for another. In fact, for many organisations replacing pagers will require an entire infrastructural overhaul, costing a significant amount of planning and, of course, money.

We’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time that Matt Hancock has delivered a banning order without providing additional funding. First it was the fax machines, now it’s the pagers we must cull and replace with little-to-no budget.

And this leads me to my biggest issue with Hancock and his obsession with banning outdated NHS tech: the staggering of the announcements. Banning fax machines and pagers separately over the course of a few months is great if you looking to earn maximum news coverage and position digital health at the forefront of the general news agenda, but it is a great inconvenience if you’ve already started to make provisions – based on the fax machine ban – and now need to find something to replace pagers too.

Indeed, issuing banning orders issued in this way not only projects a disjointed strategy but it also results in the NHS trying to solve each problem in isolation. A more measured, concentrated approach would have allowed the NHS to find more appropriate multi-functional solutions. Instead, we’re now at risk of bombarding staff with multiple tech solutions – overwhelming, confusing and hampering the workforce instead of helping it.

And so, while Matt Hancock’s announcement is right in so many ways, it is his approach that has upset so many. Not only is there no funding and a limited strategy, but the blanket ban of pagers is being regarded as another example of the disjoint between policymakers and the needs of those actually providing patient-care. Moving forwards, directives announced as part of a wider strategy – or with stronger local guidance that look beyond solving problems in isolation – is essential to building a future-proof healthcare system with a more efficient, mobile workforce.


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