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Inventing PagerBox
A resourceful cancer researcher devises a better way to page.

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Luis Diaz came up with PagerBox when he could no longer tolerate a beeper.

Judging by the 14,000 times it’s used daily, most everyone around Hopkins is familiar with PagerBox. That’s the online system that sends text messages direct to alphanumeric pagers, cell phones and other PDA’s and keeps patient information flowing to the internal faculty and staff responsible for providing timely treatment.

What people probably don’t know is that what became PagerBox originated with oncology researcher Luis Diaz. Diaz was an intern in 1998 when he realized the pager he then had attached to his hip simply wasn’t doing the trick. “It drove me crazy to get a page from a floor and you wouldn’t know the urgency, wouldn’t know what it was about,” says Diaz, who  remembers the tricks some interns used to communicate with the old “numbers only” pagers. “Two letter codes after the phone number meant a patient’s room, or ‘411’ meant you needed more information,” he says. “ ‘911’ obviously meant, ‘Get over here!’ ”

Recalling a more advanced alphanumeric paging system from his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan, Diaz wrote a prototype program he called “PageMD.” Then he convinced  David Hellman, then interim Department of Medicine Chair at Hopkins, to switch the entire medicine residency to alphanumeric pagers that could use his program. Within a year, he’d signed up 100 physicians and staff in the Osler training program and joined forces with one of them, a tech-savvy intern named Chuck Tuchinda. Tuchinda had worked up his own prototype, named PagerBox. Then Charles Wiener, director of the internal medicine residency program, brought Diaz and Tuchinda together.

The rest, as they say, is paging history. Diaz admits that Hopkins telecommunication folks took a leap of faith, trusting, as he says “two kids, thinking they can help communication in the number one hospital,” especially considering that their initial server ran out of Tuchinda’s Charles Street apartment, with a program that Diaz affectionately calls “skunkware—a duct tape and cardboard box, put-together enterprise.”

Perhaps, but its ease-of-use and popularity were undeniable. No longer did someone have to remember a whole pager number or even a doctor’s entire name: With PagerBox, partial names and numbers are recognized, and consult requests disseminate information to several parties at once, such as the resident on-call and an administrator responsible for tracking requests. The Web page automatically breaks long e-mail messages into several pages. It can even track staff hours, which came in handy after concerns that residents were working longer than required guidelines.

Diaz knew the program was effective when telecommunications told him call volume went down when PagerBox went up. Now that PagerBox use has spread throughout the hospital, so has its sophistication. It’s now hosted by Northern Virginia’s Rackspace, which boasts military-level security.

As for PagerBox’s future, Diaz, whose research focuses on experimental cancer therapies, says he’s content to let PagerBox grow organically (Tuchinda, his original partner, received his M.B.A. from Harvard after his Hopkins M.D. and now helps run an Atlanta-based medical data systems firm). Indeed, former Hopkins residents seem most responsible for PagerBox’s growth: As they’ve migrated to such places as UCSF, St. Agnes, and GBMC, they’ve convinced administrators there to adopt PagerBox.
For Diaz, he says the whole process is “like watching a kid grow up. You watch it catch on and then you want to watch it keep growing.”                                  


—Mat Edelson

 

 

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