Since the early days of nursing, touch has been an intrinsic tool used by nurses throughout the world.

From an encouraging hand on a shoulder, to a cool hand on a feverish forehead, to Reiki delivered at the bedside, touch is a hallmark of caring, healing and compassion. Even as technology becomes more central to healthcare, skin-to-skin contact is an art that must remain a central tenet of nursing care.

They never touched me

Anecdotally, some healthcare consumers complain that touch has become less common, especially during hospitalization. With automated vital sign assessment, higher nurse-patient ratios and stressed nursing teams, we hear stories of patients reporting touch deprivation.

I was recently speaking with an acquaintance who had undergone surgery. Reporting post-operative pain, she sought follow-up with her surgeon, who attempted to diagnose her symptoms without laying a hand on her aching leg.

Her disbelief was clear when she said, "He never touched me." She also reported an utter lack of therapeutic or kind touch during her post-surgical hospital stay. She felt "like a number."

How many other healthcare consumers are experiencing this same phenomenon?

A nurse's touch

When a harried hospital nurse is attempting to complete time-sensitive tasks, taking a few moments to check in with each patient can seem untenable. Many nurses may fear that opening the door to brief exchanges with patients could lead to extended conversations that are likely to consume more time than the nurse perceives she can afford.

This is understandable. However, a great deal can be accomplished therapeutically when a nurse allows time for a moment of compassionate touch and eye contact.

Patients are often starved for touch and long for human contact. If they are connected to multiple IV lines and other interventional technology, and family members and visitors may shy away from touching them for fear of disconnecting something. Visitors may feel the patient is too fragile or susceptible to harm. This results in the patient feeling increasingly isolated.

Closing the touch gap

Although they are often overworked and pushed to their limit, nurses can mitigate patients' feelings of touch deprivation by making the therapeutic use of touch intrinsic to patient care. Nurse leaders can assist nurses in ascertaining moments when brief touch can be provided during care, even when attending to other tasks.

For instance, when entering a patient's room to change an IV, the nurse can squat at the bedside, place his hand on the patient's shoulder, look into her eyes and explain the plan of care. The nurse could otherwise choose to stand at the foot of the bed, but that 15 seconds of comforting touch while delivering patient education is an important moment filled with the potential of connection for the patient.

Touching and connecting

Just as touch can assist premature babies in their growth and development, the use of touch as a therapeutic tool in the nursing care of children and adults is worthy of our attention.

Even while overwhelmed with tasks, nurses must not miss opportunities for administering touch to patients, however brief. That touch is crucial. It brings humanity and compassion to nursing care and the patient experience.