First, context is key. Professional distance is important in the physician/patient relationship. If a doctor has an objective, neutral tone it creates a judgment-free environment where a patient feels free to discuss any topic.
“There are emotionally charged situations that can happen in a clinical setting. If a patient has developed a rapport with a caregiver, they may reach out for a sign of support such as a hug," Kuczewski said. "If it seems natural and unforced, it may be helpful and probably of no real concern,"
Second, it is important that the person who initiates the hug is the less-powerful person.
“When people who are very ill come see a physician, they are extremely vulnerable," Kuczewski said. "They feel their health and wellbeing lies in the hands of this physician and they don’t want to offend him or her. This can make it hard for a patient to decline a hug for fear of it impacting their care."
Still, at times, the physician feel uncomfortable accepting a hug from a patient. In those instances, Kuczewski recommends trying to inject a handshake before the person moves in for a hug. If caught early enough, both physician and patient will feel the professional boundaries have not been crossed, but there still has been a comforting connection.