Impatient | Helping make the health care system work for you

Think twice before shaking your doctor's hand

"I'm convinced the handshake is an important contributor to the spread of disease, and that’s in part because compliance with hand hygiene is not perfect," Dr. Mark Sklansky said.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

A handshake is a warm greeting between a doctor and a patient. It communicates understanding and mutual respect. 

But it can also spread disease, says UCLA pediatric cardiologist Dr. Mark Sklansky. He wrote a May 15 'Viewpoint' piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association, called "Banning the Handshake From the Health Care Setting."

Why hate on the handshake?

Sklansky says there are hand-washing protocols in health care facilities, but they’re not effective enough. Studies show that only about 40 percent of health care workers comply with them, he said.

And those anti-bacterial hand-sanitizing gels are not 100 percent effective, he said. For example, they do nothing to fight Clostridium difficle, a bacteria that commonly causes diarrhea in health care settings.

For those reasons, "I think it would be wise for patients to think twice before shaking the hands of heath care providers," Sklansky told me.

What should you do instead?

Sklansky acknowledged that it’s "socially awkward" if the doctor or patient refuses the other’s handshake.

A patient and doctor are left in limbo: Shake hands for social reasons, or avoid it for health reasons?

Here’s Sklanksy’s answer: "We need to come up with something alternatively that can also provide the same sort of communication of warmth and empathy that a handshake does."

So what should replace the handshake?

Sklansky has a few suggestions for other gestures that could signal a respectful greeting.

What do you think? Knowing how unsanitary it could be, do you still want to shake your doctor’s hand? What gesture would you choose to replace the handshake?