The Optimized Doctor



There’s a simple act you’ve done with all your patients that you’ve probably been doing incorrectly. Yes, that is rather a bold assertion, but I’ll bet no one ever taught you the proper way. It’s only recently, after having done it thousands of times, that I came to realize there is a better way to give a handshake.

Handshakes come both at the critical first moment and at the close of patient interactions. The first helps establish who you are as a doctor and reassures your patient that you’re both capable and trustworthy. At the end of the visit, it seals the agreement wherein they commit to take your advice (or at least try) and you commit to do whatever necessary to help them.

a photo of two men shaking hands high-number/Thinkstock

A poorly executed handshake, or worse, none at all, can erode trust or convey a lack of ability on your part. It’s true that handshakes aren’t always appropriate: For certain patients or disease states, they would be unsuitable. For the majority of patient visits, however, they are key. Here are some secrets to a good handshake:

  • As you’ve probably experienced, timing is critical. A handshake requires someone to anticipate your action and to coordinate perfectly with you. When you enter the room, move toward your patient and put your hand forward just as you approach your patient. Too early and you look like an awkward high schooler eager for a Justin Bieber autograph. Too late and you’ll take your patient by surprise. The best position is to have your left foot forward as you reach for their hand. This gives you stability and allows you to convey confidence.
  • As you approach your patient, make eye contact. Just a second or two as you cross the room is perfect. Then glance down at their now outstretched hand and connect web to web. Your arm should be tucked in and move straight toward their hand. Swinging out to come back in is great when you’re getting your new NBA jersey from the basketball commissioner, but not for getting patients comfortable with you.
  • The grip depends on the patient. For most adults, a firm squeeze with two arm pumps is just right. For the hard-charging, testosterone-replacing ex-Marine, you can reciprocate the extra-firm grasp – let him win the grip contest though, that’s what he wants. For the freezing-in-her-gown great grandmother, an extra long hold, sometimes even double handed, is fine, even appreciated.
  • No matter how firm, it is important to convey your enthusiasm and ability to your patient. This is done with a gentle push. As you shake hands, lightly push their arm back into them. This subtle transfer of energy from you to them is a little known tip that will make your handshake much more effective. Never push them off balance or worse, pull them toward you. Your objective is to create trust; making them unsteady will make that impossible.
  • Finally, let go after two pumps. If you feel them holding on, then stay until they release. For the majority of patients, that will be a just a couple seconds.

For patients I’ve never met, I often proffer my hand turned slightly upward for our first handshake. This subtle sign of submission shows I’m open and committed to them. For our closing handshake, I have my hand turned slightly downward so that my hand is slightly over theirs. This conveys that I’m confident in what I’ve said and done and that now I want them to uphold their part in our agreement.

I’ve been using the above technique for a few years now with success. It has helped with my patient satisfaction scores, and importantly, has helped me manage difficult patients for whom trust in our relationship is invaluable.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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