The medical field is often best suited for individuals who can handle stressful situations with patience, compassion, as well as mental and physical stamina. There is a fine balance in maintaining and applying excellent communication technical skills. Doctors and nurses choose their profession with the hope of making patients feel better, both physically and emotionally. These efforts at providing comforting care may be difficult when clinicians and patients find themselves swept up in a whirlpool of tense emotions, while also distracted by the increased computerization of the many processes involved in daily patient care.

If a patient has to choose between two physicians with the same experience and qualifications, most likely it will be the one with higher compassion and better soft skills.  Healthcare is very often impacted and enhanced by the adoption of new technologies. Clinical practice is increasingly dependent on technology, which has significantly improved the way patients are treated for their illness, resulting in better outcomes. But has it also improved the emotional connection between a patient and his/her clinician? A simple non- verbal gesture such as a touch can make a huge difference in how a patient will relive and remember the briefest clinical encounter.

The power of touch 

Touch has been a major part of our life,  even while still in the womb. Touch continues to be the primary means of learning about the world throughout infancy, well into childhood. Touch is critical for children’s growth, development, and health, as well as for adults’ physical and mental well-being.  Tiffany Field, a leading authority on touch and touch therapy, begins her  book “Touch” with an overview of the sociology and anthropology of touching and the basic psychophysical properties of touch. She then reports recent research results on the value of touch therapies, such as massage therapy, for various conditions, including asthma, cancer, autism, and eating disorders.

“Physical touch is a non-verbal way of saying you care. Touch provides its own language of compassion, a language that is essential to what it means to be human.”

Marlize Schmidt

A touch of technology

Over the  past few years there has been a large leap in technology development. But with the growth of touch screen technology, there has been a decrease in touch based healing. A  Northwestern Medicine® study  documented that physicians who use electronic health records in the clinic room spend a third of the encounter time looking at the screen, which can result in important non-verbal clues being overlooked.

It is of vital importance that a physician has ample time to make a meaningful contact with the patient, where a patient feels at ease to clarify his/ her doubts without any hesitation or fear of being rebuked. In one of our earlier posts, we discussed how a sensitive healthcare professional can make a positive impact. We also discussed that a patient should feel welcomed, from the start of her clinic visit, from the reception desk itself. This continues into the clinic room, where the relationship between a patient and a physician will have important results in areas of treatment adherence, self management and future collaboration. So much can change in a 15 minute interaction!

Obviously there are basic guidelines in any hospital or clinic setting regarding any physical contact with a patient. Any touch or, for that matter, any  non-verbal form of communication, is unique for every individual, which is guided by beliefs, cultural settings and/or past experiences. Thus before touching a patient, a physician has a responsibility to make sure that the patient does not perceive it as inappropriate or invasive. The physician’s or nurse’s intent should be solely for the benefit of the patient.

A simple touch has the ability to provide profound empathy, bridging the emotional gap by conveying care, compassion and solace. Most patients would welcome their doctor’s touch, with slightly more female than male patients agreeing to this. 

As the physician interaction with a computer based health record increasingly intrudes into the clinical encounter, increased focus on how to rebalance this with compassionate care becomes a challenge. Meeting with a physician should not be mysterious or intimidating for a patient or his/ her caregivers. A simple touch may be the answer, providing patients with an affirmation of  their dignity and a reassurance that they are not mere objects in the anxiety provoking clinical setting but valued unique individuals. A simple touch can be so much!

Image source