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Why hospitals need to replace pagers with smart devices

Hospitals have been using paging technology to communicate with healthcare staff members for many years. Pagers are low-maintenance and reliable, they have a long battery life, and have proved to be extremely reliable.

As modern solutions have emerged, pagers have become less desirable in hospitals. The risk involved in maintaining legacy pager services can be high.

As paging systems are now ageing they are becoming more prone to outages and downtime, the lack of two-way communication capabilities wastes valuable time, and the ability of smart devices to use various redundant networks means that pagers are no longer the most reliable and effective solution for most hospitals.

One of the most compelling reasons for replacing pagers is their lack of two-way communication capabilities. Using a pager to summon a healthcare worker can be like shouting into the wind. There is no guarantee that the recipient will see the message and respond in a timely fashion.

The time lag between a person receiving a page and returning the call can also be significant. This can add up to unacceptable delays in getting the right people to the right place at the right time.

Clear, effective communications are essential in any workplace, but nowhere does communication have a more immediate and significant impact than in a healthcare setting. Studies have found that poor communication among care providers can lead to various negative outcomes1.

The goal of any healthcare organisation must be to improve communication and ensure that no detail is left out, especially when transferring care – such as between shifts.

Anecdotes of nurses writing patient notes on their scrubs highlights the need for a better way to communicate patient information without leaving the patient’s bedside2. Handwritten information can be hard to understand even when it’s written on charts, especially in an emergency situation where fast, correct action is required.

Smart devices can, unlike pagers, include various apps and functionality that make strong, immediate communications par for the course. Using smart devices, hospitals can improve communication among care team members, accelerate patient response times, save time, and, ultimately, deliver a better patient experience.

There are nine ways smart devices outperform pagers in a hospital setting:

1. Eliminate delays in care
When a patient needs attention, paging the appropriate staff member simply alerts them that attention is required.

Using a smart device means more information can be provided in that initial contact so the staff member understands the nature of the emergency and can prepare accordingly.

Importantly, they can immediately respond to the alert to confirm that they’re on their way. This lets other staff members know exactly what’s happening so they can better perform their roles.

2. Share information securely
Having the correct patient information to hand is essential in ensuring high-quality care and minimising the potential for errors.

When staff members have smart devices, patient information is literally in the palm of their hand. There is no need to track down patient information or updates from team members because all information is entered securely into the system and immediately available to authorised people. This includes the patient’s history, current diagnosis and/or symptoms, vital signs, and more. Having this information to hand streamlines hand-offs and can eliminate the inefficiencies that occur with manual processes at shift changes.

3. Spend more time with patients
Smart devices let nurses and physicians update patient charts digitally at the patient’s bedside rather than having to find a computer to enter their notes. This reduces admin time, eliminates the need to hand-write notes, which can be time consuming, and overcomes challenges around hard-to-read handwriting.

4. Streamline workflows
Pager systems are inefficient for wardspeople and other workers who complete tasks and must then return to a base to get their next task.

Using a smart device, these tasks can be sent continually to wardspeople and healthcare teams, letting them work more efficiently without necessarily returning to a base. This can include locating supplies and medications, receiving critical test results, and identifying on-call physicians for rounding and follow-up.

5. Reduce time spent responding to alarms
In most hospitals the nurse-call button is simply a way of attracting a nurse’s attention. The nurse has no way of knowing whether a patient is in distress or simply has a request. They must respond to the alarm, find out what the patient needs and then, in some cases, leave the room to get what the patient has asked for.

Smart devices categorise alarms, providing information so that nurses can streamline their response. If the patient needs painkillers, for example, the nurse can arrange those before coming into the room. This reduces wasted time for the nurse and also means the patient gets their pain relief sooner.

6. Provide an environment conducive to healing
Patients often complain that they can’t sleep in hospital due to noise. Constant alarms can result in alarm fatigue for healthcare workers, too. And when hospitals use overhead paging systems, this only contributes to the clamour, preventing patients from getting the rest they need to heal. Replacing all of this noise with alarms and information sent directly to mobile smart devices reduces the impact on patients while simultaneously providing more detailed information about the alarms to staff members.

7. Keep caregivers safe
Up to 38 per cent of healthcare workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers, according to the World Health Organization3. Almost one-third of Australian doctors experienced physical aggression in the 12 months before a comprehensive survey4.

Protecting all staff members is essential. Smart devices can put protective measures at the worker’s fingertips with personal duress alarms that let first responders track their location and find them faster. The device can include an automatically activated alarm if the device is detected running or lying flat for pre-programmed time periods, as this could indicate that the user is in distress. The automatic alarm eliminates the need for the healthcare worker to proactively notify authorities that they’re under threat or attack, which can help avoid escalating the situation with an unstable attacker.

Once a duress alarm is activated, the smart device can start to live-stream video and audio to let first responders assess the situation remotely and gather evidence if needed. The screen will go blank to avoid detection by the aggressor, while the device can deliver low-intensity vibrations to let the caregiver know that help is on the way. Accurate location technology makes it faster to find the person even if they’re inside the building. All of this combined, these smart device features can help keep healthcare workers safer.

8. Track patients and assets
Using smart devices and tracking technology, hospitals can track patients and assets to ensure people are kept safe and assets can be located when they’re needed.

This also helps with infection control, as it facilitates contact tracing to accurately track an individual’s interactions with people, surfaces, and equipment. Tracking technologies let healthcare professionals trace equipment-to-patient interactions, identify which assets are clean and ready for use, and provide real-time alerts if protocols before patient use are not properly followed, which means faster investigation and reporting of potential risks.

9. Reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading
Mobile clinical devices are far superior to pagers because they can help reduce the need for in-person meetings, which helps with the social distancing required to minimise the spread of COVID-19.

Caregivers can stay with patients to record vital signs and other information, removing the need to constantly don and doff protective gear, which can be very time consuming. And, they can use the camera on the smart device to capture images of patient conditions such as pressure sores.

Importantly, a smart device engineered for a hospital setting can be comprehensively disinfected in a way that pagers and other consumer-level devices can’t. The coronavirus has been shown to live on surfaces for up to several days, so thoroughly disinfecting devices is essential5. Purpose-built smart devices can withstand disinfectant using chemicals such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and isopropyl alcohol, or even UV cleaning equipment.

These chemicals will remove the virus from devices, ensuring they’re disinfected and not just superficially cleaned. Using them on a consumer-grade smartphone, however, could damage the device or even destroy it altogether.

It’s important to note that hospitals considering replacing pagers with smart devices must choose a purpose-built device rather than a consumer-grade smartphone. Even the most rugged consumer phones can’t match the demands of a busy hospital environment. Purpose-built devices can also provide increased security, reliable connectivity, and the ability to be regularly sterilised.

While some hospitals persist in using legacy pager technology, hospitals of the future are already leveraging the benefits of smart devices to provide improved patient care, better patient outcomes, a safer and streamlined employee experience, and lower risks on the healthcare organisation.

Alan Stocker is health practice lead at Wavelink.

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4758389/
(2) https://climb.pcc.edu/blog/how-effective-communication-can-save-lives-in-the-healthcare-industry
(3) https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/workplace/en/
(4) https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2017/december/occupational-violence/
(5) https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/alerts/Pages/coronavirus-faqs.aspx#1-4

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