Are Handshakes Still Relevant for Physicians?

August 19, 2015

Connecting with patients is elementary to the healing process. But how do you know that a touch would be welcome?

Having gloved, unwashed, or full hands can make greeting people a challenge for healthcare providers. So can being unfamiliar with changing attitudes, varying policies, and evolving cultural insights about the appropriateness of physical contact. Which leaves many physicians wondering how to acknowledge patients in a respectful - and increasingly non-tactile - way.

It's hard to get a grasp on greetings these days, so here are five points to consider when determining whether to offer an old-fashioned handshake, a newfangled fist bump, or a simple nod when meeting people.

1. Cleanliness

Naturally, hand hygiene is an underpinning of any physician's work. Yet studies continue to show that not everyone is cleaning their hands consistently or correctly. As simple as it sounds, you may want to refresh the hand washing protocol in your medical practice and review expectations with your staff. In addition to a sink and soap, make sure each examination room has an antibacterial sanitizer dispenser available so everyone who comes in and out, including patients, can easily disinfect their hands. Only after cleansing has occurred should handshakes be exchanged. If you or your patients are contaminated, forego the handshake and opt for a smile and verbal greeting instead.

2. Culture

A handshake has historically been the most commonly accepted social and business greeting in Western societies. Not everyone though is used to shaking hands. One of the many advantages of cultural and generational diversity is that it provides us with opportunities to learn about and adapt to a variety of customs. Since it's impossible to assess someone's habits or values by simply looking at them, ask patients how they wish to be greeted or touched if you're uncertain. Most people appreciate being granted the opportunity to share their traditions and preferences with caregivers.

3. Compassion

Physicians are there to provide compassion as well as medical expertise. Sometimes, simply holding a patient's hand or offering them a hug is the best prescription for their illness or fear. But for every person who finds the touch of a hand comforting, there is another who finds such physical contact threatening - to their wellness, their psyche, or both. People don't have to be mysophobic to feel ill at ease with such intimate social interaction; often it's their norm. So you're wise to observe, evaluate, and treat every patient's personal space with respect.

4. Courtesy

There is a business side to medicine, and that involves meeting and greeting colleagues, providers, and administrators. Even in today's more casual work world there is still a general expectation that handshakes will be exchanged as a courtesy at meetings and networking events. Your best bet is to extend your hand unless a "no-handshake policy" has clearly been established. If your handshake is declined under any circumstance, don't take it personally. Instead, have your business card handy to offer in lieu.

5. Connection

You're more likely to say, "Gimme five," to a 4 year old than a 44 year old, and if you want to relate to an adolescent, a fist bump may be the place to start. An octogenarian, on the other hand, may take offense at such informal greetings. Your goal is to connect as quickly as possible with patients, their loved ones, and their advocates, and that means being flexible and open-minded. But you also need to display your genuine personality. If you feel uncomfortable with contemporary greetings, don't offer one. If you do, people will see right through you.

It's safe to presume that handshakes are here to stay, at least for the time being. But their relevance, particularly in medical settings, is clearly being questioned. While a firm handshake usually makes a strong impression, nowadays not offering one can result in the same outcome. Whether with your heart or your hand, it's all a matter of reaching out and touching someone.

Sue Jacquesis The Civility CEO®, a veteran forensic medical investigator turned corporate civility consultant, professional speaker, and author. Jacques helps individuals, businesses, and medical practices create courteous cultures and prosper through professionalism. www.TheCivilityCEO.com