Are Pagers Obsolete?

These days, it is unusual to see people with pagers on their belts. The hot accessory and workplace essential has mostly been replaced by the cellphone. Pagers now are used primarily by people in the health care industry.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story is for people who go for old-school technology. If you're the kind of person who owns a tube television - not one of those flat screens - nothing wrong with that. Or maybe you're the kind of person who has an old Walkman with cassette tapes hiding in a drawer somewhere. Maybe you even still use it. And if you're holding on to technology that others have deemed obsolete, you are not alone.

Reporter Tracey Samuelson found some dated devices in a place that might surprise you.

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TRACEY SAMUELSON, BYLINE: Pagers were the cool, must-have gadget of the 1980s, popular with Wall Street bankers and hip-hop stars...

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SIR MIX A LOT: (Rapping) I'm rolling like a Playboy, beep, beep, beep. Just another page, just another freak.

SAMUELSON: Now pagers are primarily used by one industry - health care. Over 90 percent of hospitals still use pagers. But that's changing.

Dr. Sunny Shah is standing in the ER of the NYU Langone Medical Center. In one hand, Shah holds a small hospital-issued pager with a greenish screen and dated ringtone.

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DR. SUNNY SHAH: The last time I personally used a pager is probably when I was 13 years old and I guess late middle school.

SAMUELSON: Then he started working in hospitals and the pager came back into his life. But in Shah's other hand is a shiny new iPhone - one of about 50 the hospital recently purchased for its emergency and internal medicine departments.

Dr. Dan Shine is running the iPhone pilot program. He says smartphones are - no surprise - streamlining communication.

DR. DAN SHINE: And in hospitals that is the name of the game. You need to communicate with the resident, with the attending, with the senior doctor, with the emergency department.

SAMUELSON: In the old system, you'd have to send separate pages to each person you wanted to get a message to. Then they'd all flood to nurses' stations and line up to use the phone. It was time-consuming and meant staff were constantly leaving patients to return calls.

So even in the hospital world, pagers are becoming a bit passe.

BRIAN EDDS: Doctors don't want to carry a pager anymore. They want to carry their iPhone or their Android device.

SAMUELSON: Brian Edds is a mobile product manager at Amcom Software, which makes communication programs for hospitals - both for pagers and for smartphones.

EDDS: They don't understand why they can't, you know, get all these critical messages on their smartphone just like they receive all their other communications in their life.

SAMUELSON: Edds is literally the only person I could find who still tracks pager use. The market research firms I talked to stopped studying pagers so long ago, they no longer even keep records of the data. But Edds says even though pagers are still widely used, 70 percent of hospitals report using or experimenting with smartphones.

Still, switching over completely is more complicated than just swapping devices. Smartphones' extra functionality comes with complications, like safeguarding all the patient information that lives on the phone. Pagers, on the other hand, are simple, reliable.

EDDS: The little things, like replacing batteries. Your smartphone runs out of battery, it takes a while to charge. A pager runs out of battery, you pop a new triple-A in there.

SAMUELSON: And then there's price. Between equipment, data plans, developing apps, NYU Langone spent $10,000 to $20,000 to pilot just 16 phones. Which all means Edds expects the pager to coexist with smartphones in hospitals for the next decade. The pager is dead, long live the pager.

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SAMUELSON: For NPR News, I'm Tracey Samuelson in New York.

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