At a time when very-public allegations abound about inappropriate behavior in the workplace, it’s clear that there needs to be new and careful thinking about the right way to conduct, and not to conduct, oneself professionally. Within that context, a thorough Medscape article raises the question when, if at all, it’s appropriate for physicians to hug their patients.
“The physician/patient relationship is intrinsically intimate. During the course of clinical exams, doctors may touch and palpate their patients, ask sensitive personal questions, and sometimes present them with gut-wrenching news,” writes Medscape’s Shelly Reese. Reese quotes some doctors who say that hugging their patients is a natural way to convey that they care, while another admits to being “the Grinch on this” while discussing a power imbalance.
“In a clinical exam, patients consent to being touched. They haven’t consented to any other intimate contact, however,” Reese writes. “Although some patients might welcome a hug, others might consider it an invasion of their personal space or a sign of attraction. Despite their discomfort, they’re likely to submit to the embrace.”
The Medscape article offers doctors a list of seven tips when it comes to hugging, and other publications have also addressed the subject (some before the #metoo movement and allegations). A 2010 New York Times article titled “Should the Doctor Hold a Patient’s Hand?” addresses the appropriate level of empathy, and a 2014 article in the Daily Mail, “Friendly doctors are ‘bad for your health,’” advises doctors not to befriend their patients on Facebook, not to allow patients to address them by their first names, and not to hug them.
A U.S. New & World Report article addressed whether doctors should cry with their patients, while a Los Angeles Times op-ed by a generan internship advised colleagues, “don’t be afraid of the friendly touch.”
As a 2009 Glamour article puts it: “Have you ever gotten a hug from your doc? How did it make you feel? Comforted or creeped out?”
We’d love to hear from you on the subject. If your physician has hugged you, how did you feel about that, both in the moment and with the benefit of hindsight? And if you haven’t, how do you think you would react to a hug from your doctor? Finally, what do you think doctors and other healthcare providers ought to know about patients’ perspectives here?