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Don’t start fist-bumping over a study in two people!

The Skeptical Scalpel, the nom de digital of a retired surgeon on a blog and Twitter, writes this week:

Some well-intentioned researchers from West Virginia University published a small study claiming that substituting a fist bump for a handshake might reduce the transmission of bacteria. Since many illnesses can be transmitted by contaminated hands, the idea is plausible, but it’s a good example of the media misinterpreting a study and misleading naïve readers.

…we have a study of a whopping two subjects that shows no significant difference for bacterial growth or contact time of the handshake versus the fist bump. Also, I wonder how many times a day hospital workers shake hands with each other? My guess would be zero.

Did these facts deter the media? Not one bit. Take a look at these unrestrained headlines.

  • LA Times: “Handshakes are germ bombs – embrace the fist bump!”
  • The Atlantic: “The Fist Bump Manifesto”
  • MedCity News: “Want to spread fewer germs in hospitals? Ditch the handshake, go for a fist bump”
  • CBC News: “Doctors encourage ‘fist bump’ over handshake to prevent illness”
  • National Geographic: “Why Germs Prefer Handshakes to Fist Bumps”
  • FierceHealthcare: “Want to cut HAIs [Hospital Acquired Infections]? Try a fist bump”

ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser even reported on his own experiment – adding high fives to the mix – but never mentioning the study that was in the Journal of Hospital Infection in December.  It left the impression that this was his original idea.  Oh, and he lowered the experiment to an N of 1 – him. And the ABC/Yahoo story sounds far too definitive when it concludes:

The Results? If you’re worried about catching something, it’s safer to do a fist bump.

Here’s the ABC on-air version.

In another made-for-TV medical moment, 5 anchors on the NBC Today Show set celebrated the study of 2 by fist bumping.

Sigh.

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