Is it ever OK to hug your patient?

Whatever you do, ensure you explain it in your notes
hug cartoon

GPs are being told to err on the side of caution and avoid hugging patients who may need comforting.

The advice comes from a leading UK medical defence organisation that has issued a gentle reminder to GPs to tread carefully and try to avoid this type of physical contact.

In her online blog, Dr Ellie Mein, a medicolegal adviser at MDU, acknowledges that doctors must be able to comfort their patients and show compassion, but she cautions that hugging can easily be misconstrued. 

“Just because you are a member of a caring profession, this doesn't mean you are obliged to give and receive unwelcome hugs,” she writes.

However, she concedes it can be difficult when a patient initiates the hug.

“Usually, offering a patient your hand and a smile along with an explanation that you feel hugging oversteps a professional boundary is the kindest method of shutting down an attempted hug.”

In this way, she says the doctor is making it clear it is nothing personal while offering an alternative, which may reduce any embarrassment. 

On the other hand, she acknowledges that some doctors like hugging or being hugged, in which case she says it’s probably okay as long as the contact is tactfully managed.

“In many cases offering or accepting a hug from a patient may not mean that a professional boundary has been crossed,” she says, adding that it is wise to document the consultation just to be on the safe side.

This should include any physical interaction in case it is later reported as being inappropriate.

“You could include mention of the circumstances surrounding the hug, who initiated it, and any verbal consent given by the patient,” she says.