Chapter 2: Strategies to assess and engage with families

A note about physical touch

“When she was admitted to the ICU, we were told by the team that they did not understand why she was transferred as she was too sick. It was so demoralizing to have this breakdown in communication and be left feeling that the transfer to ICU was for nothing”. – Family member

Exercise caution with respect to physical touch. It can be a source of comfort, but it also carries risks – for both you and for the patient or family member. Be aware that touch can sometimes blur professional boundaries and trigger intense emotions.

Patients and family members are vulnerable when experiencing grief and trauma. As a result, they are very dependent on you. Even if you ask permission, a person may not feel comfortable saying “no” to you.

Not everyone is comfortable with physical touch.  Examples of things to keep in mind when considering physical touch include:

  • If you don’t know someone’s personal history, you don’t know what touch means to them
  • Cultural norms
  • Your own comfort

Rely on your observations of the patient and family and use good clinical judgement to assess whether touching someone lightly might be helpful or harmful.

Conversation Prompts

“Would you like to hold my hand for a moment”?

"I'm sorry but I'm uncomfortable with hugs - thanks for understanding".