Why Tom Ahrens Wants to Put an End To Shaking Hands

Viven Health's Tom Ahrens is changing common behaviors to radically reduce the spread of germs

Courtesy of Viven Health

Anyone who meets Tom Ahrens in person shouldn’t expect a handshake.

Instead, the cofounder of Viven Health prefers to greet people with a fist bump. This isn’t a sign of disrespect to those Ahrens is meeting for the first time though; it’s just one small way out of many that he is helping to halt the spread of common germs in the United States.

“Studies show that fist-bumping is at least four times less likely than shaking hands to spread bacteria from person to person,” Ahrens says. “If our program is successful in the next couple of years, we’ll eliminate most handshaking in the United States.”

That is the essence of the program Ahrens helped kickstart at Viven Health: to educate people on how to make simple behavioral changes that can drastically reduce the spread of germs and communicable illnesses such as the cold, flu, and pneumonia.

Viven Health achieves that goal through its interactive, digital education programs that focus on giving participants an engaging way to learn how to protect themselves from germs in common gathering places such as airplanes, schools, offices, and more.

Thomas Ahrens, Viven Health Courtesy of Viven Health

In each of Viven’s programs, participants go through an online simulation in one of these gathering spaces, where they are confronted with choices about how to make the area around them cleaner.

For example, in one simulation, users find their avatars sitting in a seat of an airplane and they are asked to clean areas where germs are hiding. From there, participants use hand sanitizer wipes that uncover colorful germs that they need to clean to complete the simulation.

In addition to improving individuals’ awareness of their surroundings, Viven’s simulations can also help people identify appropriate preventive healthcare measures based on the time of year, their age, and more through these simulations as well. As a veteran public speaker on a multitude of healthcare topics, Ahrens understands that interactivity is key to engaging people and creating behavior change in the general population.

After traveling around the world giving lectures on subjects such as the dangers of sepsis to audiences in Australia, New Zealand, and more, Ahrens has learned the limitations of the standard lecture format.

“I always ask people, ‘How many of you paid attention the whole time I’ve been talking?’ You can only hold someone’s attention for so long,” Ahrens says.

To ensure people do pay attention for the duration of Viven’s simulations, however, Ahrens has developed a series of short programs that take fewer than ten minutes to complete. This also makes them more accessible to people with busy schedules, and it gives them the ability to complete the programs on the go, he says.

But the crux of these programs is their interactivity. Ahrens’s speaking engagements reinforced to him the need for Viven’s education programs to be interactive if they were going to be successful.

“You learn by doing,” Ahrens says. “If I tell you how to change a tire that’s one thing, but if you have to change a tire, you’re going to learn. The idea is the more you have to do, rather than listen, the more likely you are to change your behavior.”

As a relatively young company—Ahrens cofounded Viven Health about five years ago—one of the biggest challenges is getting the word out about the company’s offerings. To increase awareness, Ahrens and his team of healthcare industry veterans are leveraging partnerships they have nurtured throughout their decades of experience in the field to launch their programs in hospitals nationwide this year, as well as beginning to provide their services to private businesses.

An idea that has flourished at Viven, and one that it hopes to spread, is that a person’s immune system is their best friend. But unfortunately, Ahrens says, individuals don’t treat their immune systems that way.

“You can pick stuff off the floor and eat it and your immune system will protect you from that, but it can’t protect you from everything,” he says. If followed properly, the programs could prevent sepsis, an infection where the immune system goes into overdrive to protect the body from viruses and bacteria, which can be fatal.

“We talk about cancer being the most public health interest to treat, but you could also say the same thing about sepsis because that’s what people usually die of,” Ahrens says. “We believe ours will be the biggest sepsis education program that’s ever been done, and hopefully, the largest infection prevention program.”