Telling doc­tors they can’t give pa­tients a hug is in­hu­mane

Daily Mail - - News - Dr MAX THE MIND DOC­TOR DrMax@dai­ly­mail.co.uk NHS psy­chi­a­trist Max Pem­ber­ton may make you re­think your life

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.

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