A Doctor Reflects on the Small Ways Technology has Changed Practice

July 25, 2014

One physician, with more than 40 years in medicine, reflects on going "beeperless" in medical practice.

I feel naked without my beeper.  I started wearing one when I was still in medical school more than 40 years ago.  I can’t stop my hand from searching my waist for the clip-on that attaches the beeper to my belt but it isn’t there. It should be on my right side so I can quickly grab it out of the holder and check my page.

For all of these years I could not get dressed or leave my home without my beeper. In all that time I can only remember forgetting to clip it to my belt once. I was ill with a stomach flu and had a sleepless night, and I rushed out without it. 

Once, my beeper stopped working. I called my answering service and they messengered over a new one.

After 20 years with that beeper I called and asked for a new model. Beepers had gotten smaller and I wanted the latest design.

When I called my service recently to tell them I would no longer be carrying a beeper they could not even find the record of my being issued one. They did call the next day to say that they wanted it back. I guessed that they just wanted to see what it looked like.

My beeper was set to alert me with a single tone. I had tried different alerts when I first got it but quickly settled on a single “beep” or “BEEP” since it was the most piercing sound you can imagine. One “BEEP” and it got your attention, day or night, awake or asleep, an alert that never failed to startle me, even after many years of pages.

I could hear my beeper while walking through the streets of Manhattan even with dogs barking, sirens blazing. I never failed to hear it over the din of a crowded restaurant or in the winter months through many layers of clothing. I always knew when my beeper went off.

One of the frustrating things about carrying a beeper was getting incorrect callback numbers. These would typically be at night or when I was occupied with something important. Sometimes the answering service would beep me by mistake or give me another doctor’s message. Most of the time the operator had gotten the number wrong so I could do nothing but vent my frustration to my service until the patient called back and asked why no one had responded to his emergency.

My cell phone killed my beeper.

My cell is always with me and colleagues and patients often e-mail or text me. Youthful interns and residents who grew up with this technology prefer to reach me via my cell rather than have me paged. I am notified of teaching rounds by text.

It was a logical step to ask my answering service to text message rather than page me.

My weight is down by one beeper and my belt doesn’t sag to the right as it did before.

I’ve gone one more step. To avoid having to take out my cell to see my messages I’ve added a smartwatch. A slight vibration tells me that I have a message which is brightly displayed at my wrist. The young people think this is cool and I confess to some quiet satisfaction every time I silently get a message this way.

Although I am still very much on call, I feel free. I am beeperless.

Did Adams' post stir any memories of your experience with your beeper in medical practice? Share them below.

Francis V. Adams, MD, FCCP, is a pulmonologist in private practice, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at NYU, a police surgeon with the NYPD, and hosts Doctor Radio on SiriusXM channel 81 every Tuesday from 6 to 8 a.m. EST. E-mail him here.