Health Care

Would You Want a Hug From Your Doctor?

| by Toni Brayer MD
The New York Times asks, "Should the Doctor Hold a Patient's Hand" during emotional times or if the patient is crying. 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 part of the appeal 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 is 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 non-verbal cues from patients and try to respond based on intuition. I guess that is the "art" of medicine. What do you think? Should physicians hold a patient's hand or offer a hug?