By Paul Ward, International Sales Director at Etelm

It is easy to assume that emergency scenarios demand the very latest, next-generation technology. But the reality can be a little more complex.

Reliable communications between medical practitioners in hospitals and healthcare settings are clearly absolutely critical – a matter of life and death. Doctors may need to be summoned within seconds in order to respond to an emergency scenario. The unfolding coronavirus pandemic has brought this into sharper focus than ever before.

In turn, it is natural to assume that the most suitable devices for enabling such communication are medical practitioners’ own smartphones. After all, they are familiar, powerful and they can enable data-rich and visual or video communications, as well as voice and text.

However, mobile phones do have some shortcomings in healthcare and emergency settings, particularly at a time of crisis such as the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some of the reasons why.

Ease of use

We have all become familiar with the comprehensive personal protective equipment (PPE) which healthcare workers are (meant to) be equipped with in order to keep themselves and their patients safe. This includes, of course, gloves – which may cause some problems when it comes to using smartphones, as anyone who has tried to use one whilst wearing a regular pair of gloves will know. Wearing face masks and visors has also raised particular concerns relating to suitability of traditional headsets and microphones in the critical care and emergency setting too. Mission Critical systems are purpose designed to overcome the practical difficulties in various extreme environments by working closely with users to adapt accessories such as PTT & headset accessories so that they are more suitable for each environment.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, traditional radio devices, rather like walkie talkies, are actually easier to use – and to use accurately – whilst wearing PPE.


Super-strict hygiene practices are clearly another critical aspect of keeping staff and patients safe throughout the pandemic, and this means taking a strict approach to any equipment which travels with healthcare practitioners onto wards and other areas where patients are treated. But keeping a smartphone clean and sterile might prove more challenging – after all, they are not necessarily built to resist the chemicals and cleaning processes which hardware designed for healthcare settings can withstand. The risks for healthcare workers using personal devices at work and then taking them home is clearly a major concern.

Coverage and reliability

Mobile operators may be proud of their nationwide coverage outside, but inside can be a different matter. Hospitals are typically sprawling buildings, often including a mix of building materials and even unusually robust walls to, for example, create restricted or extra-secure areas. In turn, this means that patchy coverage and dead zones are a reality in most healthcare settings, both in terms of cellular mobile and WiFi networks. And this means that relying solely on public networks to get healthcare practitioners to emergency scenarios within minutes could have major reliability issues.

Once again, traditional radio devices using communications networks such as TETRA can actually be more reliable and offer more comprehensive coverage than their newer counterparts.

Flexible Group Communications

The erratic shift patterns and extreme working conditions for staff wearing PPE means that communication has been particularly difficult during this pandemic. The ability to create fast, efficient groups dynamically for each incident or critical response is clearly more essential than ever. A dedicated, private communication system allows for this flexibility and can be designed to ensure that fast, effective team communication is available on demand.


A related issue is the potential for mobile cellular networks to interfere with hospital equipment, particularly as more and more connected devices are installed in hospitals. In February 2019, it was reported that Health Secretary Matt Hancock wanted the NHS to phase out its ‘outdated’ pagers, with the organisation still using about 130,000 of the devices, or a massive 10% of the total number of the pagers left in use globally. In response, many from within the NHS reported fears that mobile phones could interfere with hospital equipment. Once again, traditional radio technologies such as TETRA can offer a more standalone approach to in-hospital communications, which does not risk disrupting other equipment. This, clearly, is particularly important during times of crisis.

All this means that, contrary to what you might expect, core classic handheld radio terminals – rather like traditional walkie talkies – have a crucial role to play in keeping healthcare settings connected – throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.