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Univ. of Iowa Hospitals Make the Switch from Pagers to iPhones

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - For more than 45 years doctors, nurses and staff at University of Iowa Health Care facilities have been using pagers to communicate with one another. Yes, pagers.

UI Health Care estimates they have about 8,000 pagers in service, receiving about 25-30,000 messages a day.

Ear, nose and throat specialist Doctor Douglas Van Daele has had his on his hip for about 15 years. When somebody wants to reach him, they send it a text.

"They can send me a message. But it's very difficult to respond," Van Daele said.

Van Daele's pager can't send messages back. So, often times, the doctor has to find a phone, make a call, and hope somebody will pick up. He said it's a waste of time that often can't be spared.

"Really, minutes matter," Van Daele said.

But an opportunity is calling, so to speak. UI Health Care has started handing out the iPhone 4S, which will eventually replace the tied tech of pagers. The transition began more than a year ago, with about 65 phones. That number has since grown to 1,500 and may reach 2,000 when everything is said and done.

"We know that the paging system was probably in its twilight years and it's limited in its functionality," said University of Iowa Health Care Director of Technical Operations Patrick Duffy.

Duffy said the phones don't use cell signals to avoid interference with sensitive equipment and the many hospital dead zones. Instead, they run off Wi-Fi, allowing doctors, nurses and staff to call and text medical information on a secure network without playing phone tag.

"You can look at the phone, look at the directory and have it tell you who's available and who's not available," Duffy said.

"It's cut down on the number of telephone calls substantially," said Van Daele. "[Staff] can do things-- get things done for the patient, in a much more efficient fashion."

Officials have also posted signs at UI health facilities to let people know when staff starts texting; they're not being rude... "They're not texting friends. They are actually conducting business," said Duffy.

Duffy said officials have plans to install medical applications on the phones to make them even more useful. He said they can't work outside of the hospital network, though. So pagers will stick around for the time being, and slowly be phased out in coming years.

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