Like so many in his profession, Dr. Jason A. Tracy used a pager to send and receive urgent messages every day. It was by his side for nearly 20 years, ever-present on his belt, vibrating with purposeful vigor whenever Tracy was needed by a patient or colleague.
That was until a couple months ago, when, for the first time in his medical career, Tracy took off his pager and never put it back on. He turned instead to a secure application that allowed him to text colleagues on a sleek and decidedly 21st-century device, his iPhone.
The change, said Tracy, the chief of emergency medicine at South Shore Hospital, was “freeing.”
That freedom has been a long time coming for Tracy and his colleagues. While most industries replaced pagers with cellphones years ago, these technological relics from a bygone era have survived in the health care industry, still the primary device doctors and other health care workers use to communicate with each other every day.
“Doctors and drug dealers are the last people to have pagers,” said Ed Gaudet, a general manager at Imprivata Inc., a medical software firm in Lexington, “and even drug dealers have moved past pagers.” It’s a joke oft-repeated inside hospital walls.
Doctors, however, could soon catch up as new apps from Imprivata and other companies surmount a big hurdle that kept medical professionals tied to their pagers for so long: patient privacy laws. The apps are built with security features such as encryption so hospital workers can securely text each other about the status of patients, eliminating the need for phone calls to communicate private patient information.
South Shore Hospital in Weymouth has launched a pilot program using Imprivata’s secure texting smartphone app with about 40 people, with plans to bring the app to most of its 1,800 pager users over several months.
Steward Health Care System, the Boston-based operator of nine hospitals, will begin implementing the app among its approximately 2,000 pager users in the coming months, starting at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton.
Hospital executives say the change will improve communication. Pager messages are short and unspecific. They often require doctors, nurses, and administrators to stop what they’re doing and make a phone call to get details. For those who receive dozens or scores of pages a day, that’s a lot of time making and waiting for phone calls.
The texts could be a simple message confirming that a particular patient has a broken bone or appendicitis, or include a photo of an injury from an emergency physician seeking the opinion of a specialist. “Anything we can do to enhance communication enhances patient care,” said Tracy, the emergency physician.
Another advantage of ditching the pager, he said: “Not having to lug that thing around.”
Pagers were the hallmark accessory of a busy person during an age when fax machines whirred and information was stored on floppy disks. The US pager market peaked at about 45 million devices in the mid-1990s, but a few million pagers are still in use today, mostly in health care, according to the global research firm Frost & Sullivan.
About 85 percent of hospitals still rely on the boxy little devices, analysts said.
Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest network of doctors and hospitals, still uses some 20,000 pagers, down from about 23,000 pagers a few years ago, when some workers switched to smartphone apps.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which depends on more than 5,200 pagers, also plans to test secure texting apps. But Dr. John D. Halamka, the chief information officer — who has championed the use of iPads, wearable fitness trackers, and other modern devices in health care — said pagers still have a purpose, especially in emergencies.
Pager networks tend to be stronger and more reliable than cell networks, which are more variable and can fail more easily, Halamka said. “During the Boston Marathon bombing incident, all cellular technology in the city was shut off. All pagers continued to work,” he said.
Hospitals are notorious for being slow to upgrade their technology. (Think paper charts.) But over the last several years, the industry has collectively spent billions of dollars to upgrade software systems and move patient records to computers.
The adoption of electronic health records — required by federal law — has taken so much time and money that hospitals simply haven’t gotten around to updating communication devices, hospital executives and analysts said. Health care and tech specialists believe pagers will stick around for a few more years but eventually go extinct as other technologies advance.
The death of pagers can’t come soon enough for Dr. Justin Campbell, a radiologist at South Shore Hospital. If he could text fellow doctors, instead of paging them and waiting for call-backs several times a day, Campbell said he could help patients receive X-ray, CT, and other scan results much faster.
“It’s antiquated technology,” he said. “I went to my kid’s school, and everyone was looking at my belt, and my daughter was like, ‘Oh, it’s called a pager.’ ”
And yet, as a doctor, this antiquated technology has been a constant part of his daily life. Looking down at the pager attached to his belt, he smiled and conceded: “I find it comforting to have on me. It’s part of my identity.”