The human touch

I recently took a group of medical students to see Mrs Cole*. She was 88 and was in hospital due to a severe exacerbation of COPD. She was kind enough to let us talk to her and listen to her lungs, despite being quite breathless. As we talked I perched on the edge of the bed and, as I often do, held her hand.  She grasped it tightly and wouldn’t let go. I finished the teaching session, sent the students off to their lecture, and stayed with Mrs Cole longer than I had intended. It felt like she was clinging to me as we talked; clinging to my youth, my health, and my carefree existence.

I couldn’t offer her much: we were treating her exacerbation but no drugs could reverse her lung damage. No words could allay her very real fears for the future. But I felt what I could offer – a tiny piece of my time, and my hand to hold – meant something.

As my friends will attest I am no alternative medicine advocate, but it would be arrogant to suggest that there is nothing beyond the knowledge of ‘modern medicine.’ Thinking about Mrs Cole’s reaction I wondered if we underestimate the power of the human touch: the literal, physical connection of one person’s skin on another’s. Hospitals are dehumanising places and as doctors we put up barriers to protect ourselves from the daily site of pain, disease, and suffering. We are in danger of slipping  into an ‘us and them’ mentality, compounded by the differences in socioeconomic status and educational experiences of the average doctor and average patient. We examine and investigate people in a clinical and efficient way and try to fix them. But many patients we see, especially in general medicine, cannot be ‘fixed.’ They have chronic diseases that they will live with for many years. In all honesty, more often than I’d like to admit our treatments do very little to alter disease trajectories. I sometimes think a dose of compassion is a more effective intervention than any drug. The question examined in Intelligent Kindness, is whether NHS staff, in the current climate, have any compassion left after experiencing little themselves.

Despite the challenges, I see hope in the relationships we form in healthcare settings. The system around us shouts about targets, procedure times, and new-to-follow-up-ratios. It demands quality, without articulating what that is. But in the midst of this we find quiet moments of human connection, where people let their barriers down, hold hands and share an understanding of a shared human experience. ‘Us and them’ becomes ‘us’.

Kindness is something that is generated by an intellectual and emotional understanding that self-interest and the interests of others are bound together, and acting upon that understanding

A literature search on the effects of human touch disappointingly reveals little. A review article in The Journal of Holistic Nursing explores a conceptual model of intentional touch and highlights some relevant studies. It uses the term ‘touch hungry‘ to describe those individuals who are seldom or inadequately touched in a safe or appropriate way. They are often marginalised individuals: due to poverty, homelessness, age or disability. They may be separated from family and friends, or segregated from society because of stigma and fear. Healthcare professionals will be familiar with these groups and their complex needs. Some nursing practices, which can be as simple as providing hand and foot care, encourage the use of intentional therapeutic touch to offer comfort and promote healing as part of holistic nursing practice.

An interventional study by Moon & Cho, 2001, explored the effects of nurses providing handholding for patients undergoing cataract surgery. The study authors suggested that comfort touch conveyed empathy, had a soothing effect, reduced anxiety (as measured by patients subjective experience and by adrenaline levels), and provided both the nurse and the patient with a feeling of increased security. The authors encourage touch as an intervention because “it is a noninvasive, harmless, inexpensive, and easy to perform and because the patients’ responses to the intervention were very positive“.

Edvardsson et al. (2003) discusses the importance of intentional touch for the professional, in the context of caring for older people. The authors suggest that when nurses provide intentional touch to patients they perceive themselves as valuable as people and professionals, and feel a power inherent in the kind of touch that eases suffering. In addition, the experience of intentional touch has the potential to transform the way in which the nurse regards his or her patients. Rather than seeing a demanding patient, Edvardsson suggests that the use of intentional touch helps the nurse see the patient as a human being.

These descriptions are interesting, but they are limited by subjectivity and reporter bias. In a search for more concrete evidence of the therapeutic benefits of touch I came across a review ‘The skin as a social organ in Experimental Brain Research, which “situates cutaneous perception within a social neuroscience framework by discussing evidence for considering touch…as a channel for social information.” The authors present data which they suggest indicates that specialised pathways for socially and affectively relevant touch may begin at the level of the skin with specialised nerve fibres. They also explore evidence for  higher processing of social touch sensation in specific brain areas such as the insula and orbitofrontal cortex. Of course such reductionist approaches have their own limitations when we examine such a complex phenomenon as the physiological, emotional and social effects of human touch.

Abraham Verghese, an Infectious Diseases physician articulates the power of touch specific to the doctor-patient interaction in his TED talk on the ritual of the physical examination. In this context the examination’s function is not to detect signs of disease, but to communicate compassionate and, he argues, this has a transformative effect. The ritual is cathartic and comforting and allows the  doctor to communicate a message to the patient: “I will always be there. I will see you through this. I will never abandon you. I will be with you through the end.”

I’m not sure where these thoughts should lead. I certainly wouldn’t advocate for NHS-funded touch therapy in place of other more evidence-based approaches, and clearly such an intervention could never be implemented on a large scale since the care-givers would need to truly feel the compassion they were trying to convey. But compassion, empathy and the human touch are central to holistic care, and it is worth reminding ourselves of their value. It comforts me that other physicians understand the power of this dimension of care, despite the difficulties in generating empirical evidence of its effects. Human touch can communicate in ways that go beyond the limitations of language, and articulate kindness more powerfully than any other action.

As GP Dr Jonathan Tomlinson says “Kindness in healthcare is how we communicate with and relate to our patients, our colleagues and ourselves. It is much more than how we listen, it is how we feel and how we respond and it is part of the culture we share.

I hope that should I ever cross the divide from physician to patient, that someone will communicate their compassion through more than words; that they will take time to listen, to understand, and to hold my hand.

* name changed to maintain confidentiality

8 responses to “The human touch

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  3. Reblogged this on DundeeChest and commented:
    Some things to think about when you next go to the wards.

  4. Pingback: The human touch « Ferreting Around

  5. Interesting thoughts….you might be interested in this article on touch
    Touch is often dressed up in biomechanical/medical language but the reality is much more nuanced . The usual default position of Drs in the community regarding those with unexplained medicals symptoms (particularly chronic pain) is to refer to Physiotherapy . As I am a physiotherapist in such a setting I got interested in looking at aspects of touch and communication . Many isolated , lonely individuals are certainly touch starved and many patients seldom get examined in any meaningful way .
    Often the most common complaint I hear is the Dr didn’t move away from the computer or he/she didn’t even examine me . Often from a medical point of view the physical examination for many problems is probably unnecessary but as Dr Verghese suggests it is an important part of the ‘ritual’. The ritual of touch in many cases has been reduced or eliminated completely . Its very common for the most ‘difficult’ patients to be helped by touch therapies which many conventionally trained medics would dismiss….The fact that change occurs should alert the curious mind that something has indeed changed and probably is explainable .
    Many people choose to go to Osteopaths massage etc and the skin contact is often a catalyst for ‘healing’ .This ‘healing’ response can be explained in many ways . Modern neuroscience explains aspects of touch contact via interaction with central ‘body maps’ .Sandra Blakslee wrote a really good readable account of this
    “I sometimes think a dose of compassion is a more effective intervention than any drug. The question examined in Intelligent Kindness, is whether NHS staff, in the current climate, have any compassion left after experiencing little themselves”. Agree completely!
    In the age of obsessive protocols and the fact that education is often based on an ‘operator’ technician model (certainly the way Physiotherapy education was conducted) rather than an ‘interactor’ engagement approach is probably responsible for a lack of simple engagement and contact in many cases?
    Thanks for your post and your interests in a more humane approach to care –really heartening reading!

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  8. This is worth a read.


    Robert W. Hatfield, Ph.D.

    University of Cincinnati, Department of Psychology in V. Bullough, B. Bullough, & A. Stein (Eds.). Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, NY, 1994.

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