While there’s some evidence that hugs are psychologically beneficial, for clinicians and US presidential hopefuls they can be open to misinterpretation and may outright land you in trouble.
Gold Coast surgeon Dr Rhea Liang took up the touchy issue recently with a simple Twitter question which, at time of writing, has had almost 700 responses; “Doctors hugging patients – yes or no?”
Doctors hugging patients- yes or no?
— Rhea Liang (@LiangRhea) April 18, 2019
Perhaps unsurprisingly the responses (from both doctors and patients) were many and varied ranging from “yes” to “never”, with every possible nuance in between.
Key among the observations was that “appropriateness” was all important with one noting “context is king”.
This is why emotional intelligence is so important! Helps with understanding context and reading cues. I still always ask though. In peds, my line is usually “Do you need a hug or a high five?” That way they have options.
— Hannah Weinstangel (@WeinstangelMD) April 19, 2019
Some doctors believed there should be a “preamble” if they were going to hug, while others were OK with a hug as long as it was initiated by the patient.
I’m an oncologist. I hug although it is rare. Usually with a patient I’ve known a long time, at the end of an emotionally hard visit, when I sense it’s the right thing to do. And I always ask first. I have a whole hug preamble.
— Julia Close, MD (@JuliaLClose) April 18, 2019
Others noted the potential cultural minefield of touch with Dr Liang herself pointing out that in Pacific Island, Asian and Arab cultures “touching the head, especially of adults” is considered disrespectful.
Dr Jane Deacon MDA National Insurance manager of medico-legal advisory services urged caution on the part of doctors.
“I wouldn’t say never but be careful with your hugging,” she said. “You need to be pretty sure the hug is going to be take in the way it is intended.
Agreeing that “context” was paramount she said much was dependent on the gender of doctor and patient, their respective ages and context. “Whether a doctor is female or male may be critical in certain circumstances”.
Dr Deacon, who runs the organisation’s Boundaries Workshops several times a year, said there had been several cases where doctors had given what they thought were supportive hugs, only to have them misinterpreted.
And sometimes when patients initiate a hug, it may start out as non-sexual but could change.
‘A touch on the patient’s shoulder or hand may also provide a gesture of support and is less likely to be misinterpreted,” she said.
But a professional doctor-patient relationship didn’t necessarily mean being cold and unsympathetic.
“Culturally appropriate physical gestures such as a handshake may be expected,” she said. And “it is important to know patients’ customs and beliefs”.