Imagine this scenario. You are a male health care provider and you complete an evaluation of a woman close to your age. You establish good rapport as you always do, she laughs at some of the same jokes you make with all patients, and she expresses delight that you are listening to her problems (unlike those other providers she says she has seen), feels you are helping her, and is looking forward to the next appointment with you. At the end of the visit, she walks up to you and opens her arms to give you a hug. What do you do?
Many may feel that they do not want to offend the patient and so they go on and give the hug even though they may not feel comfortable. In my opinion, this is the wrong choice. For starters, hugs, unlike handshakes, are sometimes intimate gestures. You hug your spouse during intimate moments but you do not shake your spouse’s hand. A hug is much more informal compared to the handshake, which results in a slippery slope.
As health care providers who need to be objective, it is important to maintain some boundaries that maintain the doctor-patient relationship (add any healthcare provider you want to in place of doctor). Hugging patients blurs those boundaries. For example, it will be more difficult to tell patients news they may not want to hear (but need to hear for their sake) if they begin to see you more like a friend or family member than a professional.
Another problem is that in this day and age, concerns about lawsuits and patient complaints are more prevalent than ever. The concern in this case is that the meaning of a hug can be misconstrued by a patient as meaning something more intimate than was intended. In addition or alternatively, some accidental touching to sensitive body area can occur during a hug that is misinterpreted by either person. This can raise concerns of sexual harassment as the person can claim that the touch was unwelcome. This is more likely to occur if the health care provider initiates the hug. It is more likely to occur when the hugger is a male health care provider and the recipient is a woman or a child. Female to female and female to child sexual harassment claims are much less common. This means that female health care providers do not need to worry as much about a sexual harassment claim based on hugging patients but the crossing of professional boundary lines issue remains.
When a patient tries to initiate a hug, my response is to simply say in a nice and respectful way that I am not allowed to hug patients because it crosses a boundary line. Then I offer my hand for a handshake. This can admittedly result in some slight embarrassment on both sides, but it is better to be safe than sorry. This solution is better than one that a supervisor once told me he used, which was to say “I think you need to get your hugs from somebody else,” which sounded too rejecting to me. If the patient insists on hugging you and lunges on you, it is best to document this clearly in your clinical note and explain that this cannot occur again.
The advice I provided above also applies when interacting with patient family members. That being said, there may always be a rare exception depending on the case and circumstances.
Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at MedFriendly.com.
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