To Hug or Not: Physicians Differ on What's the Right Behavior

Sandra Levy


February 19, 2018

In This Article

Giving and Receiving Hugs

Hugging patients comes naturally for some physicians, especially when the patient has a terrible disease, is grieving, or is lonely and needs moral support.

A family physician said:

I began hugging my HIV/AIDS massage therapy clients in 1995, when many healthcare providers were terrified to touch them. That experience has made me a "hands-on" physician today. As a woman, mother, friend, and physician, I always say, "I'm a hugger; are you?" And then extend my open arms to patients, allowing them to accept or not. Never has a patient expressed dislike or discomfort. Many have expressed gratitude for the contact, especially elderly and terminally ill patients, who get very little, if any, human comfort daily.

This emergency medicine physician said that hugging is the norm where he lives:

Being from Hawaii, we hug and kiss our patients all the time because it's part of our culture... If I thought a hug was appropriate, I'd open my arms... If the patient liked hugs, they'd step forward to receive it. If not? They say, "Ah, thanks doc"...and be on their way. I only had two refusals. And it was always in the presence of staff, for today's "rules" and lawsuits arena.

Another physician said:

I hug every one of my patients and kiss most. That's my culture. It's what "feels right" to me. That's my expression of sympathy/empathy; of "I am in this with you." I strongly believe it helps to build trust, not undermine it; to solidify my commitment to the patient, not the bill. It is my choice to practice this way, but understand if others are not like me.

One ob/gyn said:

I offer hugs in appropriate situations, and I have many long-term patients for whom this is a natural gesture of greeting or farewell... It is common for me to encounter patients who share enormous pain...marital infidelity, aging parents, deaths in the family, job stress, errant teenage children... during the course of their appointment...and who feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable with me. I have never felt anything but gratitude and human kindness from any patient who either initiated or accepted a hug if the situation warranted.

Another ob/gyn agreed. "I hug my patients, usually when they initiate it. Sometimes I'll ask first. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes it's just a human response to the situation. It's OK to hug. Shows you're human."

Still, some physicians found it sad that human interactions are now being regulated. "So now we need "guidelines" for hugs?" asked one physician. "That is pathetic." The same physician continued:

So many of our elderly patients need and ask for hugs as a greeting or more often, a goodbye. They have had long lives with a lot of tragic and wonderful events...and only discuss or vent about extremely private issues to us. We have known them for years or decades, and the hug is part of the healing art of medicine. We review their history, examine them, and discuss their treatment, and then as they are leaving the office, many want a hug. This hug is acknowledgment and confirmation that we are doing our best to help them, knowing that their personal struggles may be significantly impacting their ability to get well.

Several practitioners who are in favor of hugging said that it's important to be cautious. "If my patient asks me 'Doc, can I give you a hug?' my answer will always be 'yes'; however, it will be a 3-second hug and nothing more. I know that they may be grateful or friendly, but in the current climate we should not indulge in any longer embrace," said another physician.

A gastroenterologist agreed that it's wise to be careful when hugging a patient:

Touching the patient appropriately is therapeutic. Side hugs are highly advised, and NEVER belly hugs. Always let the patient initiate it, and this often involves nonverbal cues. Use common sense. And if you're socially awkward, then it's time to practice and work on your bedside manner. That's part of your job and healing power as a physician.


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