Telling doctors they can’t give patients a hug is inhumane
AFEW months ago, a patient I’ve known for years came to see me. I immediately knew something was wrong, and before she’d even sat down she told me that her daughter had died earlier that week in a car accident.
She stood there, motionless, weeping. I care deeply about this woman and I was devastated for her.
There were no words I could offer her to make her feel better — literally nothing that I could say.
I put my arm round her and, before I knew it, she’d flung her arm over my shoulder and was crying uncontrollably.
What should I have done? Pushed her away? Told her that it was not appropriate to touch me? of course not, because it was perfectly appropriate.
When we see another human being in distress, it’s only natural to comfort them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a dustman, the instinct to touch and console is overwhelming.
Yet, this week, doctors were urged not to hug patients in case they complain. We must be ‘firm’ in refusing to embrace them. The Medical defence union, a body that defends doctors against legal claims, said doctors should instead offer to shake the patient’s hand.
have they lost the plot? ‘oh, your daughter’s just died, let me shake you by the hand.’
These people have no idea what it’s really like on the coalface.
But the whole thing makes me feel desperate for what is happening to the medical profession and how we’re being made to feel scared of our own shadows. of course, I’m not going to go round hugging all my patients, but I’d like to credit myself with the ability to judge a situation.
There have been many other times when I’ve hugged patients or held their hands. It’s not uncommon when I discharge patients for them to become emotional and hug me. They’ve often been very ill and close to death, and yet here they are now, well and healthy and being discharged.
That’s an incredibly emotional experience for lots of reasons.
Rebuffing a hug and shaking someone’s hand in this sort of situation would actually be incredibly rude and damaging. You’ve seen this person at their most vulnerable — and yet when it comes to it, you don’t even want to touch them? That’s not right.
I think if you treat a patient like a human being, you can’t go far wrong. one of the reasons his patients gave for nominating Professor Mike dixon for the daily Mail’s health hero awards was that he ‘gives wonderful hugs’. Good for him!
A consultant in geriatrics I once worked for used to hug lots of his patients — very often after having to break bad news such as a terminal cancer diagnosis.
I asked him about this, and he replied that many of his patients hadn’t been touched in a caring way for months or even years, and that this was a tragedy.
NOT everyone has family or friends, he said; some people have no one. ‘When you’re told you’re going to die, you need to feel for a moment that you are not alone — giving someone a hug is the best way to show them that,’ he told me.
Yet over the years we’ve become increasingly wary of human contact. And I fear that the rise of the #MeToo movement and the hideous actions of a few are making us all twitchy about our innocent actions being misconstrued. This week, there was also new guidance on how doctors and midwives should address women in labour. Some of it was sensible — don’t use confusing acronyms when speaking to the patient, for example. And don’t talk about them as if they aren’t there.
Fair enough. Though if you need to be told this, then really you shouldn’t be caring for patients.
But other advice was to avoid using terms such as ‘good girl’ to encourage women. Sure, it might be a bit patronising, but it’s about context. People sometimes call me a boy — and providing it’s said in the right circumstances, I’m delighted! Surely we can leave it to the doctors and nurses to judge a situation and the patient.
Increasingly, medics aren’t treated as human beings, but automatons to be tightly controlled; more evidence of the contempt those in charge have for those on the ground. It also means patients aren’t treated like human beings either.