Cooties. That dread disease for which there is no effective vaccination. A microbe resistant to all known antibiotics and antivirals. A fourth biological domain – archaea, bacteria, eukarya, and cootia. Cootiensis trumpii, in formal Linnaean taxonomy, is the sole representative of this branch of life. A highly contagious cause of a wide range of medical, social, and psychological ills. The Dreaded Lurgi, to our UK colleagues and Spike Milligan fans. Etymologically, cootie may be derived from kutu, a term for a biting insect in the Austronesian language family, attesting to its pandemic nature. Cooties appear to thrive in certain foods, icky substances like mystery spills on hospital floors, and dropped food not picked up for a few dangerous seconds too long. In the sometimes cruel world of childhood, an unfortunate socially awkward child may be super-infected. During my pre-pubescent years, I was fairly certain that most girls my age were cootie hosts. My sisters sure thought I was a cootie reservoir.
Cooties may be as old as humanity. Some paleoanthropologists believe that the hand impressions common in many Paleolithic caves actually represent ritual attempts to purify the hands of cooties acquired by the ancestors of modern humans after they interacted with Neanderthals and Denisovans, who in fact may have been wiped out by a devastating cootie plague rather than having been out-competed by our early ancestors (Okay, I admit I just made that up about paleocooties and early humans. But nowadays it is apparently okay to make up facts, just as long as they serve one’s agenda.).
All of which brings me to how I greet patients at my cancer genetics clinic. About a decade ago it dawned on me that many of my patients are immunocompromised from their cancer treatment. The last thing they need is to acquire an infectious disease from me. Handshakes have long been known to be a source of microbe transfer between people. So I decided that I would stop shaking hands with my patients when I greeted them in the waiting room. After all, we are supposed to make them healthier, not sicker.
No, I don’t know the likelihood of passing along infectious disease cooties via handshake in an outpatient setting but it is probably not trivial. Yes, I use a hand gel sanitizer but many people use them inadequately. Besides, I bet all that hand sanitizing is selecting for super-resistant cootie strains. Evolution is far more resourceful and clever than we can ever hope to be. Soap and water may be more effective than alcohol gels in eliminating microbes but, honestly, how many of us will sing “Happy Birthday” twice while thoroughly soaping up between genetic counseling sessions? No, I am not a germophobe. Regular exposure to microbial organisms is a good way of keeping my immune system cocked and loaded. Yes, my hospital has policies on minimizing contagion in out-patient settings. For example, the plants in my office must be a minimum distance from patients.
Which is why it strikes me as odd that guidelines do not include a hand-shaking ban; my guess is that hand clasping is at least as likely a source of nosocomial infection as the big old plant in my office. On top of that, many employees come in to work when they are sick with some crud, trying to be conscientious, not inconvenience co-workers, and not screw up patient schedules. “Oh, it’s just a cold and I am past the infectious stage, I am sure” they will unconvincingly say between coughing fits. The road to an office-wide flu epidemic is paved with their good intentions. And not uncommonly there are unstated conflicting tensions between hospital policies encouraging employees to use their sick days and the attitudes of mid-level management who seem to view sick days as abuse of a privilege bestowed by God and only to be used when you are near death or beyond.
I recognize the social importance of the handshake in establishing a trusting relationship between strangers. So I have replaced it with a simple wave and a pleasant smile, which is probably at least as socially effective and friendly as a handshake. Some patients look at me quizzically when I state my no handshaking policy. However, the vast majority become very appreciative of the policy once I explain its basis and most people say “That’s a good idea. I wonder why most healthcare providers don’t do it?” Good question. I think it actually enhances the trust between provider and patient, and communicates that I care about them far more concretely than those hospital advertising slogans that proclaim patients always come first. And for patients who still think I am peculiar after my explanation, well, tough noogies, as we used to say when I was a kid (extreme situations called for the more forceful “Tough noogies on your boogies!”).
Call me old-fashioned, but other forms of greeting, like the fist bump or its two-knuckle modified version called a cruise tap, seem inappropriate in the hospital setting and still involve some degree of skin-to-skin contact. Wearing gloves to shake hands would be just plain old wrong. There are other greetings that do not involve skin contact – the wai in Thailand, eyebrow flashing, sticking out your tongue (Tibet), the Japanese bow, the namaskar of India, the jumping greeting dance of the Maasai, or particularly among men in Western cultures, that barely perceptible slightly angled up-tilt of the head between two bro’s who sort of recognize each other. But unless you work primarily with specialized patient populations, the regular use of such greetings will probably only lead to awkward misunderstandings between clinicians and patients.
I admit that it felt odd when I first started my no-handshake policy. I sometimes held my hands behind my back to fight the instinctive urge to shake hands. Deeply embedded cultural practices don’t disappear overnight. But after a few months, it became quite natural and I found myself recoiling in concerned surprise when I would see other providers shaking hands with patients. I have even begun minimizing handshaking outside of work; there is always “that bug that’s going around” that I prefer to avoid if I can. The no-handshake policy should not be limited to the cancer clinic. We need to minimize the risk that any patient will get sick from a visit to a medical office, whether or not they might be immunocompromised. No one deserves the cooties!
Thanks yet again to Emily Singh for help with graphics