Many hospitals still rely on out-of-date pagers because they do not want to take a risk or invest in new communications technology. We examine how new devices can improve patient and staff experiences.

Peterborough City Hospital, Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS FT

When Peterborough City Hospital moved to a new building in November 2010, staff faced a communications challenge. Not only were they trying to familiarise themselves with the different building layout, different ward names and an entirely new working environment, but all the phone numbers for clinical contacts had changed too.

John Ellington, medical equipment manager for the hospital explains: “In the previous facility, communication wasn’t too bad because it was a small area and fairly easy to manage communication with five theatres. But the new hospital has 18 theatres and a huge floor space. You could easily spend 10 to 15 minutes walking around looking for someone.”

‘Few hospitals can say with certainty how many pagers they have, whether they are switched on or working’

Like most UK hospitals, Peterborough City relied on pagers. However, the traditional pager process can be expensive in clinical time. Research suggests that a person who is frequently paged can spend 20 per cent of their time looking for and waiting on phones.

A recent survey showed over 70 per cent of nurses has a smart phone. When the communication technology nurses carry for personal use is better than the technology provided to support their professional work, it is time for a rethink.

Technology has transformed every part of our lives, yet many hospitals still rely on out-of-date communication devices simply because they do not want to take a risk on the new or invest in the technology. 

Rethinking clinical communications

First introduced into hospitals in the 1950s, pagers were once cutting-edge technology. Cost-prohibitive at first, as all new technology is, they only began to appear in great numbers in the 1980s. Even though this technology is now over 50 years old, the pager is still used in most hospitals around the UK.   

Peterborough City Hospital opted for a two-way hands-free communication device which can be worn as a badge or round the neck.

Paul Burdett, managing director of communications company Vocera UK explains, “The system is voice controlled and allows clinicians to call each other instantly over a wireless network. Be it checking bed availability in a specific ward, or alerting a consultant about a changing patient condition, it makes it easy to ask questions and get answers instantly. Instead of spending the time finding the right colleague, clinicians can therefore spend increased time on patient care”

Streamlining hospital operations

Few hospitals can say with any certainty how many pagers they have, who has them, where they are, whether they are switched on or working. Anecdotally, some hospitals have admitted they are paying rent or maintenance on pagers which it believes are lost but, because no one can be sure which devices are missing, the hospital is obliged to keep paying.

‘The quality and efficiency of internal staff communications is directly related to improved patient safety’

It wasn’t just the difference to the administrative side of communications that Peterborough City Hospital noticed. Mr Ellington believes their operating theatre use has gone up by 10-15 per cent since they deployed the two-way technology. Faster access to equipment and personnel during and between surgeries have been the main reasons behind this.  

Improving patient safety

The historical pager technology system is difficult to audit, requiring people to manually record each page received so the record can be manually compared with the log of pages sent. This is very time consuming and expensive few hospitals attempt to do this.

One report by the National Patient Safety Agency found in 2007 over a thousand reported incidents involved pagers. Of these, 7 per cent resulted in “moderate or more serious harm” to patients. By the very nature of manual records, it is difficult to tell how many incidents go unreported. New digital systems log each interaction automatically.

Enhance patient experience

At Peterborough City Hospital, one health care assistant, Nicola Rea, estimates she has gained at least one hour of time a day since digital two-way communicators were introduced. “If you need one particular person for a phone call or to pick up a patient from recovery, it was quite difficult to find that one person. Now it’s a lot easier to reach them directly.”

The quality and efficiency of internal staff communications is directly related to improved patient safety, enhanced patient experience and increased job satisfaction among staff. For these measures to increase over time, the technology facilitating staff communication has to be fit for purpose.