There is no “15-minute rule” in nursing

Shutterstock | wk1003mike
Shutterstock | wk1003mike

Ever heard of the “15-minute rule” within the academic ranks? I first heard of it as a college freshman during an introductory physics class. The professor was late–the class started at 1:00 pm and it was almost 10 minutes past the hour. I overheard a fellow classmate whispering to another classmate, “Five more minutes and we’re outta here!”

Of course, I had to know what they were referring to. They told me that the “cancellation courtesy” time was 15 minutes. If a professor did not show within that time frame, class was cancelled.


Curiously enough, I heard this same urban legend throughout my college years. I cannot confirm or deny its validity, but it sure gave the newbie college students an excuse to ditch class, didn’t it?

So what does this have to do with nursing? I’m wondering if there is a “courtesy” time frame when awaiting a return phone call from a licensed provider who was contacted by pager?

Oh, you know what I’m referring to! You have an urgent (maybe even emergency) matter that needs addressing. You page the provider on call. And you wait for them to call you back…



Now, over the years I’ve heard many theories and contingency plans, but there is no documented standard the last time I checked (although I have heard of tentative protocols before). Some of the most aggressive nurses may wait five minutes if you’re lucky, while the more laid-back, nonchalant nurses have been known to place one page for the entire shift, whether or not they get a call back.

Is there such a thing as waiting too long? Or not waiting long enough?

It also seems to be dependent not only on the information you need to share, but also with whom you need to share it. With some providers you can get immediate calls back. Others claim the pager didn’t work, or that the full number didn’t go through. Walking on eggshells is a kind way to describe this debacle.

Then there is the sticky situation of no return call. What do you do when the situation needs addressing? Do you page them incessantly? Do you call them at home? Do you contact administration?

The reality is, each nurse has his or her own plan of attack. I know we all have our patients’ best interests in mind, and ultimately we will do whatever it takes to address our concerns–even if that means sending out a search party for the provider in question (by the way, that’s a true story!).

This is just another entry to add to the “things they don’t teach you in nursing school” list.

Care to weigh in?

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5 Responses to There is no “15-minute rule” in nursing

  1. Belasko

    Being in the ICU I have little patience for long time periods waiting for a callback. I depending on the severity of the emergency I will go down the list of numbers we have for the doctor, including home and office #’s, calling one every 3-5 minutes or if it’s more of a “so you’re aware” type thing I may only call once and if the call back great. If not I may or may not depending on what it is. I have also bypassed certain physicians if they have a track record for not calling back in a timely manner if I have other physicians consulting on the pt’s case. It all depends on the circumstances.

  2. Steph

    A) I’m a student, I haven’t experienced this in the “real world” yet, but I imagine that my patient’s situation level will determine my response and assertiveness with the provider in question…unfortunately, I’m one of those annoying people who won’t leave you alone if I think your attention should be someplace other than where it is, lol

    B) Our college has it in the policy book: 15 minutes…if the prof isn’t there, class is cancelled.

  3. rosycat

    I’ve been a nurse for 33 years. My rule is wait 15 minutes then page again if it is a real emergency. In this day of blackberries, and iPhones – I also use email – not as intrusive as paging, and sometimes faster if the professional being paged is in a meeting, or away from the centre. I page 3 times – if there is no answer, and I’ve checked office and possibly assistant – I take it to the next level. I work in a very busy centre, and I spend much of my time contacting other professionals at all levels – I write down the time I paged, and the time I re paged. I do not page unless I need an answer right now, I use email for answers that can wait.

  4. wheezer

    I work in a Transfer Center-so getting in touch with MD’s is our business! If it’s a Level One Trauma; STEMI or something just as critical – generally we do page every 5 minutes. We utilize all resources to contact them…pagers, cell phones & calling the OR, or the ICU they might be in. We do call residents mostly – if we can’t reach them, we call the ones junior and tell them we can’t reach the senior! If it’s a serious call & life threatening, we’ll call the attending. If we have trouble reaching an attending that isn’t under the teaching service – we go thru the answering service. Very rarely can we not reach a MD. For non urgent calls, we might wait up to 30 minutes before we re page. We also document every attempt at paging or contacting. It all depends on the severity of the reason we’re calling, not one time frame fits all.

    • destabilise

      I work on an acute medical unit, if our pt is rapidly deteriorating we put out a normal bleep, then if no reply within a few minutes, we fast bleep the doctor, then if there’s no response still, we will just put out a crash call. We’re lucky our crash team doesn’t have an issue responding to calls when the pt hasn’t actually crashed, prevention is better than treatment.