STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Infections in the hospital in particular are a serious and potentially life-threatening problem. And many of these infections are spread through the hands of health care workers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, now one Los Angeles hospital is testing a new way to decrease infections by asking people not to shake hands. Anna Gorman reports.
ANNA GORMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Mark Sklansky is a self-described germaphobe. He thinks a lot about how easily germs are spread.
MARK SKLANSKY: If I shake someone's hand, or if I am at a computer terminal, or I'm using a phone or opening a door, or I know that my hands are now contaminated - and I need to be careful, and I need to wash my hands.
GORMAN: And he does. But he thinks doctors shouldn't shake hands in the first place.
SKLANSKY: We're trying to do everything we can to minimize hospital-acquired infection, except for the most obvious and easiest thing to do in my opinion, which is to stop shaking hands.
GORMAN: So Sklansky decided to create a handshake-free zone. He's a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA and picked the neonatal intensive care unit, where the tiniest and sickest babies are taken care of. Sklansky and colleagues put up signs and met with staff and families. Neonatologist Joanna Parga says she liked the idea but didn't know if it would work.
JOANNA PARGA: Because the handshake is so ingrained in our culture - that I was wondering what patients and families would think.
GORMAN: They didn't ban the handshake in the NICU. But they did suggest other options - a fist bump, a smile, a bow.
PARGA: And I do a lot of the shoulder touch now or, you know, upper arm touch or shoulder touch.
GORMAN: Parga shows me around the unit.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
GORMAN: She points to a sink just inside the door. Beside it is a sign with a big slash through two hands shaking.
PARGA: Hi. How are you doing? I'm Dr. Parga.
GORMAN: As she walks through the unit, she stops to say hello to a family.
PARGA: Are you Mom? Hi. Nice to meet you, too. I'm not going to shake your hand.
GORMAN: She explains the handshake-free zone.
PARGA: It's to help prevent infection in the NICU. It's just another way to try to keep our babies safe.
GORMAN: Sklansky and others surveyed staff and parents about the change and found most people were on board, especially the families.
BRITTNEY SCOTT: (Shushing).
GORMAN: New mom Brittney Scott stands above her son's crib. He sleeps to the sound of a babbling brook.
SCOTT: This is Samuel, my son.
GORMAN: Samuel is in the NICU because of a problem with his intestines. Scott says she'd never heard of a handshake-free zone.
SCOTT: So I was a little taken aback by it at first. But, yeah, once you really understand kind of the meaning behind it, it's great.
GORMAN: She knows Samuel is at risk of infection, so avoiding germs is important. Scott says now she prefers a smile to a handshake.
SCOTT: A smile goes a long ways in here. There's a lot of ups and downs when being a parent to a NICU baby.
GORMAN: Some infectious disease specialists argue that doctors don't need to stop shaking hands. They just need to scrub better. Studies show only about 40 percent of doctors and others comply with hospital hand-washing policies. Sklansky says, why not do both?
SKLANSKY: It's not in any means to take the place of hand-washing. It's actually meant to complement those efforts.
GORMAN: His next step is to see if handshake-free zones will reduce infections. He's convinced they will. I'm Anna Gorman in Los Angeles.
INSKEEP: She's a correspondent with Kaiser Health News.
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