Dr Phil Hammond, GP, lecturer and presenter of BBC2's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor


I know a GP who kisses his patients. Not all of them mind, just the ones with ovaries. We're not talking slobber on the knuckles or whiskers against the cheek – he hits them smack on the lips. No kidding.

Now when I did geriatrics, I was tempted into the odd peck (not just with the spinsters with large estates and no surviving relatives), and I assumed that my colleague was doing likewise.

But no, he kisses women his own age. Once when they come in, and twice when they go out. What's more, he tells me they'd be disappointed if he didn't. Lucky sod.

There's nothing in my General Medical Council handbook of professional etiquette that says you can't kiss your patients on the lips, provided that it isn't perceived as sexual.

Loosely translated, this means don't open your mouth and come up for air every 10 seconds. But perception is in the eye of the receiver, and many doctors have been hauled across the front page of the Sunday People for far less than lip service.

I once worked with a Dr Ron who was a compulsive hugger. He hugged everything with a pulse and plenty without, but concentrated his efforts on the elderly.

His theory was that people living alone can go for weeks without human contact and he was doing them a huge favour. Certainly he was terrifically popular – so much so that one mature lady started putting it about the supermarket that Dr Ron "gives me cuddles".

This reached the local press, who put a most uncharitable spin on it and he was forced to move, which is a great pity because he was very good with the difficult patients.

It's easy for doctors to construct an argument to get them out of touching. True, there are some psychiatrically ill or confused patients whom it may be unwise to touch, and some entirely rational patients who don't relish the arm-around comforts of a sweaty health professional. But the vast majority of us find asexual human contact comforting in times of adversity.

Indeed, massage therapists would argue that adversity is too late to discover the joys of unconditional stroking. We need it every day, in every way, to be at one with our physical, emotional and spiritual selves.

How do I know all this? I've just had a Watsu, or under-water Shiatsu if you prefer. It involved taking off my glasses, exposing my beer gut and being bent and pummelled in a boiling swimming pool by a strange, bearded Dutchman called Pim.

"Most men have forgotten what it's like to be cradled by another man," he whispered as he elevated the experience from physical to spiritual. The whiskers tickled a bit, but the overall effect was surprisingly invigorating. And not in the least bit sexual. Honest.

If complementary therapists can get away with such close physical contact, then why not doctors? There are plenty of patients I'd love to submerge in a hot tub; it's alright Mrs Smallbone. The intimacy of aquatic bodywork represents a new way of being. Don't forget to breathe now.

Sadly, not many doctors are that broad-minded and many go to great lengths not to touch their patients at all, not even to shake hands. This seems a pity as the key to the continued success of many complementary therapies is human contact.

If we want to keep up, we have got to rediscover the healing power of touch. But first we need to sort out people who want to be touched from those who don't.

This isn't always easy. If a man pitches up to Pim for a Watsu, he can be fairly sure he wants to be touched. But if the same man comes to me for a repeat of his gout medication, I'm not so sure. For legal reasons, I have to get informed consent first. So I lean across and say "Would you like me to touch you?" or, to avoid confusion, "Would you like me to touch you in that special way that only a doctor can?"

For those who consent, I give them a questionnaire to fill out at the end. How satisfied were you with the way your doctor touched you today? Name three things you liked most. Name three suggested improvements.

I've tried this approach in my surgery for the last fortnight, but it'll be a while before the results appear in The Lancet. Preliminary findings can be found in the Sunday People.

  • Dr Phil Hammond is a GP and author of the best-seller Trust Me, I'm a Doctor (Metro, £9.99).

Guidelines in Practice, December 1999, Volume 2
© 1999 MGP Ltd
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