It's a common phenomenon: You bang your elbow on the doorjamb then automatically touch your hand to your arm. According to new research, that simple gesture isn't just a bizarre but meaningless reflex; it really does help to reduce the sensation of pain (Current Biology)! Investigators found that thermo-sensory and tactile information exchange modulates the perception of pain—an intriguing finding that highlights the surprising power of touch.
Dermatology, routinely described as a visual specialty, is perhaps as much about touch. Although the diagnosis of cutaneous disorders is well-suited to teledermatology and distance medicine, virtual patient encounters lack an important element of a real-world clinic visit. Touch is an essential form of communication for any medical specialty, but especially in dermatology. When clinicians touch a plaque of psoriasis, they convey to a patient the sense that lesions aren't repellant. When they place a hand on the shoulder of a patient with skin cancer, they channel reassurance. For the distraught teen with acne, a firm hand on the arm implies hope. In cosmetic practices, a light touch can instantly erase wrinkles and provide patients a glimpse of possible treatment outcomes. And when the dermatologist cuts or injects, touch can help ease the pain.
Along with sight and touch, of course, verbal communication is critical. In the routine practice of dermatology, the spoken word is essential for everything from effectively managing and motivating staff (as discussed on p. 18) to educating patients about products and services (p. 34).
The ways that clinicians communicate with patients can mean the difference between adherence and therapeutic abandonment, the confidence to pursue a cosmetic procedure or the decision to postpone it, and even whether a patient will come back to your practice or recommend you to family and friends. Given the critical importance of communication, it is worth taking the time—as described in this issue—to thoughtully consider how you use the essential patient care tools of touch and speech in your day-today practice.