The unspoken skill of touch in health care

What drew me to spending my gap year as a medical assistant was the advertised “direct patient care experience.” While patient care is my favorite part of the job, it comes with its own unique challenges for a first-time health care worker.

An unexpected challenge that I had to overcome with patient care was learning how to touch patients. I am tasked daily with removing sutures, staples, assisting with wound care, etc. None of my premed classes taught me how to steady my hand or what it is like to cause another person pain. The first time that I removed staples from a patient was incredibly awkward. My hands were shaking, a bead of sweat was slowly making its way down my face, and I felt the need to apologize every time I touched the patient. I could not have asked for a kinder patient to be my first. They ended up comforting me and in classic sweet elderly woman fashion said, “Honey, if you’re going to practice on somebody it might as well be me.” This elicited a chuckle out of everyone in the room and eased the building tension between me and her incision. This patient taught me that using conversation and laughter can ease the pain for the patient and my own nerves. Now that removing staples has become almost second nature to me, I still try to get each of my patients to smile during the process.

The skill of learning how to touch patients is not limited to procedures. In my role as a medical assistant, I often help to steady patients with balance issues, help patients dress and undress for exams, assist in patient transfers, and even hold a particularly nervous patient’s hand while they receive an injection. In most careers and typical interactions, touching strangers is frowned upon. As a health care worker this is an everyday occurrence and an adjustment to typical societal norms. This adjustment surprised me as when I have my own medical appointments, it never has occurred to me to be uncomfortable with touch during an exam, blood draw, or procedure. It was not until the tables were turned, and I was the one touching the patient, that I realized that health care professionals are not always perfectly comfortable. Perhaps they were not as inexperienced as me, or they were just better at hiding it.

All physicians in training have to start somewhere, and I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to practice getting used to touching patients before beginning medical school. In health care, there are only so many ways to practice a skill before performing it on a patient. Taking sutures out of a banana is just not quite the same as a person whose skin has been scarring and healing and who feels pain. We try our best to be prepared, but as with any new skill, the first few times will be difficult and may not be performed as perfectly as an experienced clinician. It is important to remember that everyone has a first time and that this experience that feels so uncomfortable in the moment is universal. The key is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Natalie Enyedi is a premedical student.


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