Physicians’ Experiences of Touch, a Hermeneutic Reflection




Touch is central to clinical practice but can be a “touchy subject” in medical education, simultaneously associated with care, and risk. In the clinical literature, touch is typically categorised as communicative or procedural, with an emphasis on touch as behavioural. Philosophically, touch is also a subject of consideration, yet this literature remains relatively unfamiliar to clinicians. In this essay, I reflect on touch in healthcare and medical education, as explored in my PhD studies, drawing on the work of hermeneutic philosophers, particularly Merleau-Ponty. Interpreting touch, I propose, is inherently hermeneutic, offering many possibilities to deepen our understanding of human interaction and clinical practice. Touch embodies the clinician-patient relationship as a holistic encounter. In high intensity interactions, touch orientates expression of empathy “beyond words". I present the significance of hermeneutics for clinical education, to richly re-imagine, and challenge, the concept of patient-centredness.

Author Biography

Dr. Martina Kelly, University of Calgary

Dr Martina Kelly is a family physician and professor in the Dept of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, where she oversees family medicine teaching in the undergraduate medical program.  Her research seeks to deepen understanding of how doctors and patients encounter each other in consultations, with an emphasis on embodied interactions and nonverbal communication such as touch.  Methodologically she draws on ideas from humanities, and hermeneutic philosophy to help tease out and draw attention to small moments which can have profound impacts on patient care.