Doctors urged to give up handshakes to help stop the spread of disease

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Handshakes may soon become a thing of the past at hospitals, thanks to a group of doctors' efforts to stop the spread of bacteria and viruses.

"The handshake-free zone brings attention to the hands as vectors to disease," Dr. Mark Sklansky told ABC News, explaining that people's hands are often covered in bacteria or viruses picked up from various surfaces. "If people knew this years ago, [handshakes] would not be part of the practice of healthcare."

At UCLA, Sklansky and other doctors have started a program to discourage handshakes among staff who treat the most vulnerable patients in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Kaiser Health News was the first to highlight the pioneering program.

Sklansky, professor of clinical pediatrics and chief of pediatric cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, started the initiative in 2015. The initiative stems from the fact that medical staff who do not wash their hands often enough can put the hospital's most vulnerable patients at risk for infection.

Doctors treating children, "many whom have antibiotic-resistant germs," could pass those germs on to even more vulnerable infants, Sklansky said.

WHO estimates of compliance for hand hygiene in medical settings frequently fall below 40 percent, Sklansky said. Poor hand hygiene can mean increased risk for hospital-acquired infections, which kill approximately 80,000 patients in the U.S. each year, according to the WHO.

Sklansky studied how people responded to the program at two neonatal intensive care unit centers at UCLA. He found that families were likely to be in support of the program immediately but older, male physicians were the most reticent about giving up handshakes. The study was published earlier this year in the American Journal of Infection Control.

"In contrast to findings of prior surveys recommending the continued use of the handshake in adult medical settings, we found that patient families expressed nearly universal support for the concept of [handshake-free zones] in NICUs," Sklansky and his co-authors wrote.

Sklansky isn't the first to be concerned about the cleanliness of handshakes. In 2014, researchers from Aberystwyth University studied which greeting was the most hygienic among a high-five, fist bump or handshake.

They found a traditional handshake transmitted the most amount of bacteria and a fist bump transmitted the least amount of bacteria.

Sklansky said that for doctors, shaking hands isn't just about good manners, it's also part of their medical school training. While counterintuitive, he thinks that taking away the handshake can actually force doctors to take more time and make more of a connection with a patient and their family before delving into treatment options.

"Without sitting down and listening, [the handshake is] not as effective as someone might think," Sklansky said.

Sklansky said he has foregone handshakes in most of his interactions in the hospital.

"I like to smile, look someone in the eye and touch someone on their shoulder or do a little bow," Skalansky said.

Next, he wants to study if handshake-free zones actually decrease the number infections in patients. He predicts that could be likely. Fellow doctors have emailed him about possibly implementing the practice in other areas of the hospital, but for now, it remains in effect only in UCLA's NICU.