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The risk to a nurse is that a patient may perceive the hug differently from the nurse. A nurse might perceive a hug as nonsexual, nonpainful, and nonfrightening but a patient may experience it as threatening, sexual, painful, and/or frightening. Sometimes a nurse can assess a patient and a situation and make a decision that it would be appropriate to hug; the interaction is successful and everyone is happy. But sometimes a nurse can't know what is going on from the patient's side or may assess inaccurately.
Criminal laws provide the basis for punishing individuals who touch others without consent or who frighten others by a threat of unwanted touching. If a patient asks for a hug, the patient is giving permission for a certain type of touching. However, the nurse must then worry about whether the hug was longer than the patient wanted, or too tight and therefore frightening, or that the nurse's hands or body weren't exactly where the patient expected them to be. Any time a nurse touches a patient in a way that isn't required for caregiving, the nurse takes a risk.
On the other hand, some argue that it can be untherapeutic to turn down a patient who asks for a hug. That may be the case, but there are many ways to get out of hugging, and a nurse who decides not to hug should have a polite response at the ready
If a nurse wants to be really safe legally, then don't hug patients. If a nurse wants to respond empathetically when a patient asks for a hug, then go ahead and hug, realizing that there is a slight risk that the patient or someone else will think it inappropriate.
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