Beepers and Pagers and Phones… Oh, my!

I was looking at my beeper then other day and realized it looks exactly like beepers looked 25 years ago.   Think about it.

Here is what mobile phones looked like 25 years ago…

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 Who invented beepers?

There are some conflicting stories about who invented the first “beeper” (because they only made a noise)

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“More than 20 million people in the United States today are connected by an invisible, ubiquitous wireless link, originally developed in 1949 by a hospitalized radio engineer. Charles F. Neergard was annoyed by the constant, loud voice paging of doctors on his hospital floor, and reasoned that there must be a way to quietly inform only the intended recipient that a message was waiting. The first commercial pagers were deployed in St. Thomas Hospital in London England and were the approximate size and weight of today’s two D-cell Mag-light.”  from

“In 1921, the first pager-like system was in use by the Detroit Police Department. However, it was not until 1949 that the very first telephone pager was patented. The inventor’s name was Al Gross and his pagers were first used in New York City’s Jewish Hospital. Al Gross’ pager was not a consumer device available to everyone. The FCC did not approve the pager for public use until 1958.”  from

Timeline of history of the pager

In the era of nothing but landlines, pagers were necessary to contact people who were moving around. Which leads to the next obvious question:

Why do we still have pagers in medicine?

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Most physicians preferentially use texting as a method to communicate with each other (when we can).  But, we all still have pagers, too.  There are several reasons:

1) You can turn off a pager (when you aren’t working).  It’s harder to turn off your cell phone.

2) Pagers don’t interfere with medical equipment.  (Unlike some cell phones).  (Although there are some who feel that the benefit of improved communication outweighs the potential risk of interference. )

3) Pagers work in the basement and in steel reinforced buildings (like hospitals), places that limit cell phone reception

4) You can dial one number to reach a group of people (important for codes, etc)

5) The battery life is much better than a cell phone

6)  In a disaster situation (like a hurricane) pagers still work when cell phones don’t

Where are the new solutions?

There are systems now that allow you to use special mobile phones within the walls of the hospital.  Some systems, like Spectralink, use proprietary phones that work only within the hospital.  Others, like Vocera, use software to allow the use of iPhones for the same purpose.  Apple has acquired a patent for a similar system which suggests they may be working on new technology.

Making a new product for the almost 1,000,000 physicians in the United States would seem to be a market big enough to warrant some creative ideas!  How about the most obvious one – Why can’t the full function of a pager be added to a cell phone? 

Any engineers and/or entrepreneurs looking for a new product to develop?

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2 thoughts on “Beepers and Pagers and Phones… Oh, my!

  1. Ahh the pager. Something that terrified me at the beginning of residency; now I’m used to it. I am so scared about the pager that I’m actually much better at answering it than my phone. So there you go– respect the pager, that little black box of terror. Would a phone make this better? Probably not.

  2. That’s why I chose to specialise in Emergency Medicine. Years of pager-torture as a s*#t-kicker junior doctor on the wards left me scarred! How would the cell-phone app deal with the fact that ward doctors often gets 5-10 pages while on the phone answering the last page?! Would it queue up calls & hammer you with them as soon as you hang up the last call?

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