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Doctors are urged not to hug patients as the comforting embrace 'could easily be misinterpreted'

  • Doctors are being told not to hug patients to comfort them as they may complain
  • The Medical Defence Union has warned doctors to ‘err on the side of caution’
  • They say a hug e ‘could be easily misinterpreted’ and to offer handshakes instead

Doctors are being urged not to comfort patients with a hug in case they complain.

They are being warned to ‘err on the side of caution’ as a well-meaning embrace ‘could easily be misinterpreted’.

Instead, the Medical Defence Union suggests that if they wish to comfort a patient, they offer a handshake ‘to avoid embarrassment’.

The MDU, the UK’s largest body to defend doctors against legal claims, also urges them to be ‘firm’ in refusing a hug from patients who may have ‘amorous feelings’ for them.

Doctors are being urged not to comfort patients with a hug in case they complain (file photo)

Doctors are being urged not to comfort patients with a hug in case they complain (file photo)

They should clearly explain to the patient that hugging is ‘inappropriate’ and risks ‘overstepping the professional boundaries’.

If they do hug a patient – or are embraced unwillingly – doctors should ‘document’ it in case there are repercussions. Dr Ellie Mein, medico-legal adviser at the MDU, said: ‘Doctors must be able to comfort and show human compassion to their patients, but physical contact can easily be misinterpreted, particularly if coupled with other words or actions the patient may feel are inappropriate.

‘This can trigger a complaint or even lead to an investigation by the General Medical Council or the police.

‘If the patient initiates the hug it can also be difficult for the doctor to know what to do, especially if the patient is upset.’ She advised doctors to make a judgment based on their knowledge of the patient, as well as factors such as age and gender.

Doctors are being warned to ‘err on the side of caution’ as a well-meaning embrace ‘could easily be misinterpreted’ (file photo)

Doctors are being warned to ‘err on the side of caution’ as a well-meaning embrace ‘could easily be misinterpreted’ (file photo)

The advice comes a week after a Government report found foster carers were afraid of hugging the children they looked after in case they were accused of abuse. Some local authorities had issued guidance to foster parents on how to handle physical contact with children.

Dr Mein added: ‘This is an area that is potentially fraught with problems and it may be better for doctors to err on the side of caution.

‘Even though hugs are meant to comfort a patient, they can be misconstrued and may be best avoided. Offering a patient your hand instead, for example, can avoid embarrassment or accusations of unprofessionalism.’

The MDU’s advice also instructs doctors to ‘weigh up’ all situations before offering patients any form of physical comfort.

The guidelines are further evidence of how doctors are living in fear of being sued or referred to their regulator, the General Medical Council.

GMC chair Professor Terence Stephenson has said doctors have become increasingly ‘defensive’ in recent years due to ‘fear of litigation. A GMC spokesman declined to comment on the hugging advice but pointed out it had produced general guidelines on ‘professional boundaries’.

The Medical Defence Union suggests that if they wish to comfort a patient, they offer a handshake ‘to avoid embarrassment’ (file photo)

The Medical Defence Union suggests that if they wish to comfort a patient, they offer a handshake ‘to avoid embarrassment’ (file photo)

Published in 2013, it states that medics must not be seen to be abusing their professional position.

GPs are carrying out up to 70 patient consultations a day – nearly three times the level deemed to be safe.

While the average is 41.6 contacts daily, including face-to-face appointments and those done over the phone, a fifth of doctors held more than 50 a day. EU guidelines recommend GPs conduct no more than 25 consultations a day. The figures come from a survey of 889 GPs last month by Pulse magazine.

 

Tags Health

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Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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