What Happens When a Doctor Is Paged

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Skeptical Scalpel


Skeptical Scalpel (click to view)

Skeptical Scalpel

You've been paged at home. You respond immediately but are placed on hold. Indefinitely. Has this happened to you?

It’s 8:15 p.m. I am at home. My beeper goes off, and I check it instantly. It reads, “555-1212” [Number changed to comply with HIPAA regulations]. It’s the inpatient surgical floor. Within 10 seconds, I have dialed the number.

The unit secretary answers with the scripted and time-wasting response: “Hello, this is Blockley East, Jennifer, Unit Secretary speaking. How may I help you?”

“Skeptical Scalpel, returning a page.”

“Oh, yes. Hold on, I’ll get the nurse.”

Cue the recorded announcements extolling the virtues of the hospital’s world-class robotic surgery program, the revolutionary Cyberknife®, the wound care center, the award-winning maternity suite and blah, blah, blah. I have the spiel memorized. Give me elevator music any time over this. Speaking of music I love to use my subwoofers to blast my music. Click here to see the best studio subwoofer.

I’m thinking about the patients I have on that floor. Is it about Mrs. Schweinsteiger’s urine output? Is Mr. Robben’s NG tube not working again? Has the lab work come back on Miss Gomez?

I look at my cell phone. It’s been 2 minutes and 37 seconds since I answered the page. I’m hearing the recording for the third time.

Hmmm. At 4½ minutes, I hang up.

The punch line? I was never paged again.

So, what happened here?

My theory is that immediately after a nurse pages you, she runs as fast as she can to get as far away from the nurses’ station as possible. Maybe she went off duty. Maybe she took a break. Or something. And it apparently wasn’t that important or she would have paged me again.

This kind of thing happens just about every day and drives me crazy.

In an informal and unscientific poll of doctors who frequent an online physician community, 52/56 (93%) of MDs who responded said they had experienced pages like the one I described.

Skeptical Scalpel is a practicing surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For almost 2 years, he has been blogging at and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog has had more than 185,000 page views, and he has over 2600 followers on Twitter.


  1. Dr. Wong,

    Thanks for the comment. I have experienced both of those types of pages too. I’ve also received 3 digits on the pager and all the hospital extensions are 4 digits. When they finally get it right, you are told, “We paged you before and you didn’t respond!”

  2. Yes, and I like the page numbers that do not exist or get a fast busy signal.

    Wonderful when you are vetting 60 pages a night!


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