In contemporary health care, touch – contact between a doctor’s hand and a patient – appears to be on its way out. The expanding role of CT and MRI imaging is decreasing reliance on touch as a way of making diagnoses. Pressures to move patients through the system more quickly leave health professionals with fewer opportunities to make contact. Our experience suggests that when doctors spend fewer minutes with patients, less time is available for touch.

Yet despite the rise of scanners, robots and other new medical technologies, the physician’s hand remains one of medicine’s most valuable diagnostic tools. Touch creates a human bond that is particularly needed in this increasingly hands-off, impersonal age. Medical practice is replete with situations where touch does more than any words to comfort and reassure.

The USC psychologist Leo Buscaglia, whose habit of hugging those he met soon earned him the sobriquet “Doctor Love,” bemoaned our neglect of touch in his book, “Love,” in these terms:

    “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

For thousands of years, touch has been recognized as an essential part of the healing arts. Native American healers relied on touch to draw out sickness, and kings and queens were long believed to possess the “Royal Touch,” through which the mere laying on of hands could heal. The Bible contains numerous stories of the healing power of touch. 

Touch is an essential part of our well-being

An indication of our need for touch can be found among our primate relatives. Psychologists have observed that many such species spend upwards of five hours of each day touching one another, partly through grooming. For many human beings, however, the daily dose of touching would be measured not in hours but minutes, perhaps even seconds.

Lack of touch can be hazardous to health. In experiments with primates some 60 years ago, researcher Harry Harlow demonstrated that young monkeys deprived of touch did not grow and develop normally. Mere food, water and shelter are not sufficient – to thrive, such creatures need to touch and be touched.

The same can be said for human beings. During the 20th century, wars landed many babies in orphanages, where their caretakers observed that no matter how well the infants were fed, they would fail to thrive unless they were held and cuddled on a frequent basis. Touch offers no vitamins or calories, yet it plays a vital role in sustaining life.

More recent studies have corroborated these findings. “Kangaroo care,” using papoose-like garments to keep babies close to their mothers, decreases the rate at which they develop blood infections. Touching also improves weight gain and decreases the amount of time that newborns need to remain in the hospital.