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Health Care Communications in the 21st century

Why are we still using faxes and pagers?

The tech revolution has made inter-personal communication faster, easier and more far-reaching than ever before in human history. Even so certain sectors are being left behind in the race for better communication – and it’s often by choice.

Take healthcare. In many medical and healthcare environments, inter-professional communications are still dominated by archaic technologies that many other sectors left behind a long time ago. Case in point? Fax machines and pagers.

According to a recent report on American healthcare technologies in the online magazine Vox, “…the fax is as dominant as ever. It is the cockroach of American medicine: hated by doctors and medical professionals but able to survive — even thrive — in a hostile environment. “ Vox estimates that the fax machine still accounts for about 75% of all medical communication, especially when it comes to sharing patient records. There are a number of reasons for this, from medical offices that don’t want the expense of changing dated, proprietary systems to apathy to concerns about confidentiality. And when it comes to the growing private healthcare sector, competition is a disincentive for seamless sharing between providers, services and networks.

Secure alternatives have been developed and more and more healthcare administrators are making the digitization of patient records a priority. This would seem to set the stage for the introduction of more efficient and secure technologies, but the fax stubbornly remains in place. And that’s a problem – because the rest of the world has largely moved on from this inconsistent, insecure and unwieldy technology.

Pagers and doctors are inseparable in the minds of many who grew up with mainstream television depictions of ERs and patient rounds at general hospitals. Whether to alert a doctor to a change in patient condition, or to let an on-call medical professional know that they are needed, the pager would beep, and the doctor would call in or quickly check a rudimentary text screen to get the message. The contemporary reality offers much better solutions for real-time messaging. So why do doctors and other healthcare professionals continue to use pagers to communicate? A recent Slate article estimated that about 85 percent of hospitals still rely on pagers for communication. The article, written by a doctor, outlined why some doctors still prefer pagers over mobile devices. Among the reasons, low maintenance and reception in places and situations (basements, a power outage) where cellular service may be unavailable. The emission of an alert that cannot be ignored is another frequent comment from doctors who love their pagers.

While doctors who still use pagers may rationalize it with some of these arguments, there are just as many advantages to switching communications, even in urgent scenarios, with mobile technology and secure messaging and texting apps. Mobile phones that are designed to work in hospital environments, secure and PHIPA compliant messaging systems, the option of digital signatures for saving or sharing info, the capacity to send images and video in addition to text are just a few of the most important.

So when will anachronistic technologies like faxes and pagers finally be retired? The alternatives already exist so it’s only a matter of time. But the sector may need a legislative nudge to get rid of its anachronistic devices. For the sake of patients and professionals everywhere, the sooner the better.