I’d been asked to speak at my medical school’s annual White Coat Ceremony, where first-year students are welcomed into the profession, presented with their first white coat, and given some thoughts to guide them on their way. These are the thoughts I shared with my school’s doctors-to-be. Medicine is becoming depersonalized. We are cautioned: “Don’t touch the patient; they’re in isolation.” “Don’t touch the patient; they have HIV.” But those patients need human contact the most. Just wash your hands. Consider a practice known as “therapeutic touch.” It entails moving your hands about five centimeters above the skin; the presumption is that it brushes feelings of pain, depression and fatigue away from the center of the patient’s energy field. Even after “touch” this distant, postoperative patients at Massachusetts General Hospital showed decreased pain, decreased narcotic use, lower cortisol levels and higher levels of natural killer cells. Imagine the benefits from actually touching patients!
Your hands will help you care for patients and communicate with them. Touch your patients every day. I shake my patients’ hands, remind them of my role, examine places that are injured or painful.
I’m a trauma surgeon. We surgeons use our hands more than other specialists. We cut through skin to repair a gunshot wound or remove a cancerous organ. We control bleeding with pressure. We release adhesions to relieve small bowel obstructions.
I also feel for tender abdomens, since a CT scan is only 94% accurate in detecting internal injuries. I palpate for rotator cuff injuries, which are invisible on X-rays. I feel the patient’s legs, in case I find the swelling of deep vein thrombosis. I check my patients’ pulses to be sure their vascular repairs are holding up. I examine surgical wounds to verify that they’re healing without infection.
As a physician, your hands will be your most important tools. Touch patients to let them know you care. Touch patients as you make diagnoses.
Human contact opens patients to sharing their deepest feelings. Hold hands with your patients and their families. They need you.