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Touch: knowledge and considerations for nursing practice

02 April 2021
Volume 26 · Issue 4


Social distancing has reduced the amount of touch in everyday life. This article summarises the current state of knowledge regarding the biological underpinnings of touch, varied preferences for touch, including cultural norms, and its potential psychological and physical benefits for recipients. The lack of nursing research and related evidence are noted, and suggestions are made regarding the use of consensual touch as part of non-verbal communication within community nursing practice to express compassion and help build authentic relationships between nurses and their clients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many behavioural changes, including social distancing. Older people have been disproportionately affected, because Public Health England (2021) and other public health bodies advised that they should take particular care regarding potential contact with SARS-CoV-2 vectors and withdraw from previous day-to-day activities, such as shopping and attending community and faith activities. The social isolation and consequent loneliness, together with fear, were an emotional feature of COVID-19 (Brooke and Jackson, 2020). In a small telephone interview study (Brooke and Clark, 2020) 19 older people living in England and the Republic of Ireland described how they adapted their lives in light of the public health advice and, while they had had good lives, they still valued aspects of life that made their lives worth living.

These behavioural changes have heightened awareness of how we think about touch when we can no longer get close to or hug non-household relatives and friends. Durkin et al (2021a) argued that: ‘Touch is fundamental to the human experience’ (p4), and its limitation or elimination results in touch hunger and emotional suffering. Yet, there is remarkably little research on the topic of touch, despite its importance within non-verbal communication as a means of conveying support, reassurance, care and compassion, both within nursing practice and daily life. Touch is a key component of delivering nursing physical care and can convey empathy and compassion, while also creating a bond with a patient (Durkin et al, 2021b). The Francis report (Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry, 2013) noted a deficiency of such intentional caring practice and the lack of compassion shown by nurses.

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