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Touch humanizes the doctor patient relationship

Touch humanizes the doctor patient relationship

by KEVIN PHO, MD

I’ve written previously that many doctors are finding the physical exam obsolete, and are favoring more technologically advanced, and expensive, tests.

In fact, I alluded to traditional physical exam advocates as “arguing for staying with a horse and buggy when cars are rapidly becoming available.”

In a recent piece from the New York Times, internist Danielle Ofri says we need to look past the lack of evidence supporting the physical exam. The benefits of touching the patient, and listening to his heart and lungs, cannot be quantitatively measured:

Does the physical exam serve any other purpose? The doctor-patient relationship is fundamentally different from, say, the accountant-client relationship. The laying on of hands sets medical practitioners apart from their counterparts in the business world. Despite the inroads of evidence-based medicine, M.R.I.s, angiograms and PET scanners, there is clearly something special, perhaps even healing, about touch. There is a warmth of connection that supersedes anything intellectual, and that connection goes both ways in the doctor-patient relationship.

Great point. She continues, saying that,

touch [is] inherently humanizing, and for a doctor-patient relationship to have meaning beyond that of a business interaction, there needs to be trust — on both ends. As has been proved in newborn nurseries, and intuited by most doctors, nurses and patients, one of the most basic ways to establish trust is to touch.

Although some doctors — myself included, at times — may dismiss the much of the physical exam as data-bereft relics of the past, listening to a patient’s heart and lungs, palpating the abdomen, and looking into the eyes and ears, is in part what separates physicians from being test-ordering, guideline-following automatons.

Kevin Pho is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.