Should Hospitals be “Touch Free Zones?”

by Wesley J. Smith

A provocative column in the San Francisco Chronicle argues that hospitals and doctor’s offices should become handshake free zones. From, “I Won’t Shake Your Hand,” by Mark Sklansky, MD:

Removing the handshake from the health care setting ultimately may become recognized as an important way to protect the health of patients and caregivers, rather than as a personal insult to whomever refuses another’s hand.

The bottom line is that we don’t want to lose a humanistic touch with our patients; we just don’t want to make them sicker. Banning the handshake in the health care setting may sound as ridiculous as banning smoking in public places did just a few decades ago. But, then again, how much cigarette smoke do you see these days?

I agree. Handshaking is a social custom that can be replaced by a wave, a fist bump, or a shoulder squeeze in these particular settings.

But how far should we go in trying to prevent infection?  For example, should we also prevent all medically unnecessary touching of patients, meaning, other than during treatment procedures?

I bring this up because our concern with safety can sometimes go too far. Hospital chaplains, for example, often hold patient’s hands or hug family members in their caring ministries.

Nurses similarly comfort the ill and grieving, as do hospice volunteers and professionals. And, of course, family and friends hug and kiss the ill as a natural human gesture of love and familial affection.

So, at what point do we say that the risk of spreading infection supersedes the need for human touch of medicine?

“Handshake free zones,” absolutely. But barring an unusual situation, let’s not allow that hygienic idea to become a “humanity free zone.” Hygiene is very important. But so too is a loving squeeze of the hand and a caring embrace.

Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.