The Importance of Medical Touch


Part of patients’ challenge is not knowing how every physician, nurse and medical technician will treat them, even as we’re in pain and already anxious, feeling vulnerable. And survivors of sexual abuse or assault can cringe at the lightest of touch.

“It should be a two-way conversation about what you’re comfortable with,” said Susan Finlayson, a registered nurse and senior vice president of operations for Mercy Medical Center, a 178-bed university-affiliated Catholic hospital, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, in Baltimore.

Ms. Finlayson knows their local population well, one that is poor and underserved, and trains staff members to treat them with dignity. “When nurses come in here to work, we talk a lot about our values — treating the mind, body and soul,” she said. “Patients arrive because something very tough is happening in their life, so from day one we make sure that every new group we orient here understands that and offers them patient-centered care.”

While patients need and deserve gentle, thoughtful treatment, “health care is evolving, and gotten more businesslike,” she said. “We’re pressured to do more and more and to give better value at lower cost. It’s easy to get caught in that to-do list. It’s easy for staff to get burned out.”

As patients also navigate the additional obstacles of who accepts their medical insurance, they can end up being treated less than ideally. Can they expect consistently kind and compassionate care wherever they end up? “In theory, yes,” said Ms. Finlayson. “In practice, no. There’s so much variation in hospital culture, administration and leadership.”

Every patient needs a strong advocate to make sure to be touched and handled with kindness and competence, said Mickey Osterreicher, a Buffalo lawyer whose medical journey began in 2011 with a diagnosis of prostate cancer but later included the removal of a malignant melanoma and its metastasis to his brain. A life-threatening drug reaction required even more interventions.

Along the way, he lost 40 pounds of muscle, making it more difficult for nurses to draw his blood — “the one thing I’d always taken for granted as being easy,” he said. “But some people are really good at it and I didn’t feel a thing, and other times it really hurt and left me bruised.”



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