GPs have been advised to try not to hug their patients as this could land them in medico-legal hot water.
The Medical Defence Union, which issued its advice ahead of Valentine’s Day, said doctor members had asked whether it was ever acceptable to give or receive a hug from a patient.
In response, MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Ellie Mein suggested GPs would have to make their judgement based on the situation but be generally wary of physical contact.
She 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.’
However she added that if the patient had initiated the hug it could ‘be difficult for the doctor to know what to do, especially if the patient is upset’.
She said: ‘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 advice comes as a recent study found that sad and confrontational patients are a key factor contributing to GP stress and burnout.
MDU’s general advice for 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.