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Human Touch: Does It Belong In Medicine?

Doctor holding patient's handThe New York Times asks: “Should the doctor hold a patient’s hand” during emotional times? The comments that follow the short article are the most interesting. Most readers say this question shouldn’t even be asked and that human compassion should always win out. Touch is a human gesture of comfort and understanding.

But some readers disagree. One said she recoiled when the doctor reached out to touch her hand after telling her that her cancer had returned. It felt really creepy to her. Another asked: “What if the physician is also a Catholic priest or a pediatrician and a priest?” Whoa. It becomes more complex when you get into the psyche of the abused.

I have often thought that one of the appeals of chiropractors is that they “lay on hands” and touch and manipulate patients. With 21st century modern medicine, physicians can treat entire episodes of illness with tests, scans and robots and never actually touch the patient. No wonder people feel “dehumanized” and wonder if doctors really care. Touch and compassion are part of the entire human experience and the physician is present during a patient’s most stressful time. But wait, there’s another side.

I know a physician who is absolutely wonderful. He is warm and compassionate and provides excellent care. One of his patients filed a complaint with the medical staff because he hugged her and she felt it was inappropriate. She believed he had crossed the professional line by hugging. Here is a physician who genuinely cares and spontaneously hugged a patient and she complained that it was intrusive and even went so far as to call for an official investigation. It was devastating for him.

None of us can read minds. The best we can do is look for nonverbal cues from patients and try to respond based on intuition. I guess that’s the “art” of medicine. What do you think? Should physicians hold a patient’s hand or offer a hug?

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*


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