Social distancing among the family, senior woman and younger woman on a window plane
HealthSeptember 08, 2020

The importance of physical touch amidst a pandemic

By: Heather Steele MSN, RN
The use of physical touch has been used for centuries for health and healing. So, the question lies, how do we ensure we, as nurses, continue to utilize the nursing intervention of physical touch with our patients’ and families?

How many times this year have you sat and said to yourself, “I would’ve hugged [fill in the blank] a little longer the last time I saw them”. Or on the flip side, “I could sure use a hug or human interaction without social distancing or a mask”?

When the year 2020 began, we were all excited to start a new decade. Many had resolutions and began planning the year away. No one thought the year 2020 would be the year of masks, goggles, gowns, and social distancing.

Unfortunately, it is exactly that with no end in sight. The question as a nurse is, “How can a nurse safely utilize physical touch with patients and families with so many unknowns with Covid-19”? A few barriers include masks, gowns, googles, isolation, fear of the unknown and that is just to name a few.

What can we offer?

As nurses, we offer a lot to our patients and their families. We are a source of comfort, knowledge, and healing. Our patients and families are vulnerable, fearful, confused, hopeless and alone. Let’s ask ourselves how often we have offered a gentle hug or partnered with intentional compassionate behaviors: a listening ear, heartfelt eyes, and/or undivided attention. Who remembers the back rub after bed baths we were taught to give a patient? When and why did this intervention leave our daily care plans for our patients, and more importantly why?

Benefits of physical touch for our patients

Patients will always crave the healing touch a nurse can and should provide to them. This doesn’t change amidst a pandemic, even though we might have inadvertently stopped providing this to our patients. A gentle hand on a shoulder, back or if appropriate leg or a simple hug can aide a patient’s healing journey. Everyone’s overall goal for a patient is to reduce anxiety and/or stress by aiding them to relax in a fearful time. This will, in turn, lower a patient’s heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate and just as important, pain levels! It can also strengthen the patient-care giver relationship which will improve compliance to the healthcare plan and reduce anxiety as well. There are many other benefits to physical touch as part of a patient’s care plan, I encourage you, my fellow nurse, to dig a little deeper to uncover the impact of physical touch. Overall, it promotes with healing process holistically.

Why not?

Physical touch is not new. In addition, it is easy, portable, and lastly a free of charge nursing intervention with numerous health benefits. Let us go back and remember what our founder, Florence Nightingale said that can easily be applied to the importance of physical touch:

Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, [and] fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion
Florence Nightingale
Heather Steele MSN, RN
Assistant Professor of Nursing, Tennessee Wesleyan University
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