The Power of Touch
We touch our patients. Our profession is not as hands on as some, but collecting blood samples and other procedures involves close contact and a physical touch. Here’s a question to ponder: how much do you touch your patients, and how much of that is deliberate?
Touch is our primary way to communicate compassion and other emotions. Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner describes a study in which students were separated by a barrier and could only use touch to communicate; one person stuck her arm through the barrier while the other tried to convey an emotion through touch. Remarkably, participants guessed right 60 percent of the time.
Touch has positive effects. Writes Keltner, “Research here at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health has found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from a doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.” This succeeds in part because patients expect compassion from healthcare professionals.
This need to be touched, especially when at our most vulnerable, is part of our humanity. Yet our comfort with it is learned. According to Psychology Today, reasons include how much we were touched as children, temperature (people in warmer climates tend to touch more), and even religion (agnostics and atheists are more touchy).
Here in Maine where the temperature can swing 50 degrees during a winter’s day and many of the locals stay clad in tee shirts and jackets, I’d assume people would want to be touched to keep warm. While Mainers’ stoicism is tolerated in good humor, that doesn’t mean as patients they don’t expect our compassion communicated through touch.
I touch a patient’s forearm lightly while making eye contact before examining for a venipuncture site. I’ve always felt that a sincere touch can reassure a patient and let them know I won’t hurry. If the patient relaxes, drawing blood is easier, too. This is deliberate on my part, but I’ve observed a wide variety of contact from healthcare professionals. We seem shy to touch each other and don’t discuss its benefits. We don’t have a touch strategy. Maybe we should.
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