A patient hugged me yesterday, the second one in a week. I am not a hugging doctor. And if I were, sure, I wouldn’t be hugging now while we pass through the eye of the COVID-19 storm. But in both cases, my patients opened their arms wide and leaned in before I had a chance to defend myself.
The first, a carrot-coiffed 80-year-old who stood only as tall as my shoulders, asked if she could hug me just as she put her arms around me, closing any window of opportunity for me to foil her attempt. The second was more of a modified hug. She also was an elderly woman and she too walked in close, then started to put her arm around my back. I dodged, awkwardly so it was more shoulder-to-shoulder than a full on embrace. Best buds. She too acknowledged we shouldn’t be hugging in the time of COVID-19, but felt she just had to. She couldn’t resist the urge.
Hugs may be dangerous, but they’re special. They are how we thank family and close friends, how we say I love you, I missed you, or I got you. Hugging transfers a feeling of gratitude in a richer manner than just words. Both of these hugs given to me were done to thank me and show appreciation. They were also likely part of what they wanted from me in their visit.
Abraham Verghese, MD, the Stanford University professor of medicine and TED speaker, says indeed, the most important innovation in medicine is the human hand. Yet, because of the risks of infectious diseases and risk of harm caused by inappropriate or unwanted touch, we avert it more often than not these days. Or we use it with surgical precision to mitigate risks or chances of any misadventure.
Still, touch is powerful. It releases oxytocin, lowers blood pressure and cortisol, and boosts immune responses. To be held is a basic human need. And in this time of COVID-19, many of our patients are being deprived of it.
Psychologists have a name for this condition: “skin hunger.” Skin hunger describes our universal need to be touched and, like true hunger, the health consequences of being starved of it. The first thing we do to a newborn is plop her or him, skin to skin, right on mom’s chest. From the start, touch is life giving and is hardwired into our brains as a requirement for survival.
As the pandemic rolls on, it feels we’re losing the power of this most important innovation. Through our masks and face shields, sitting 6 feet away are some patients who might more than anything else need us to touch them. With safety superseding the desire to sate physical contact craving, touch has now become one of the more difficult tasks for us as physicians. We must iterate on this innovation of the human hand. Perhaps through deeper eye contact, by spending an extra minute or two to inquire about a patient’s family or favorite TV shows. It might be a few elbow bumps, perhaps lingering for just a second to transfer your energy and comfort to them. Or using the gloved auscultation exam as an opportunity to rest your hand gently on a patient’s back.
The dangers of COVID-19 won’t be with us forever, but perhaps we can use this extraordinary time to improve upon one of our most valuable tools, the touch that comforts and heals.
Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org