Hugging a patient could land doctors in hot water, MDU advises

12 February 2018

While the doctor-patient relationship can be an intimate one, a medical defence organisation is advising doctors this Valentine’s week about the dangers of overstepping boundaries when comforting patients with a hug.

The Medical Defence Union's (MDU) doctor members have asked for advice on the socially awkward situation of whether it is ever acceptable to give or receive a hug from a patient. And some doctors have written about their dilemmas when patients hug them.

In her advice, MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Ellie Mein 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 GMC 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.

'Doctors will need to make a judgement based on the situation and their knowledge of the patient. Other factors, such as the gender and age of the doctor and the patient, also need to be weighed up.

'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 issued some general tips to doctors on comforting patients:

  • Weigh up your knowledge of the patient and the context of the situation before offering any physical comfort.
  • If you are not a hugger yourself, don't feel you have to be hugged by a patient. Offer a handshake and a smile instead.
  • If a patient initiates a hug and you think they have amorous feelings towards you, be firm in refusing the hug and explaining why it is inappropriate for them to overstep professional boundaries.
  • Document your consultation with the patient fully, including any physical interaction, as it may help with the patient's ongoing care and in case it is later reported as being inappropriate.
  • If in doubt, err on the side of caution and keep physical contact to the minimum necessary.

This guidance was correct at publication 12/02/2018. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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