Doctors are positioned to screen for domestic violence
By KEITH ROACH, M.D.
Dear Dr. Roach: Having recently changed doctors (due to a move), I filled out a new-patient intake. It had this question: “Do you feel safe in your home?” It seemed like a question that might evoke a response for a lot of possible issues that could make a person feel unsafe. I’m pleased to know that my new doctor cares about the safety of her patients, but what if a patient is not ready to divulge an unsafe situation, such as domestic violence? — G.G.B.
Answer: Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence or IPV, affects both women and men, but women are much, much more likely to be injured or killed by partner violence than men are. IPV can happen in any socioeconomic, ethnic or age group, and it can be very hard to diagnose. Physicians are in a good position to intervene, but we often do not ask and do not recognize the symptoms or physical signs of a person in an abusive relationship. I agree with routinely asking patients about IPV, and including these issues on a questionnaire (verbally, electronic or on paper) is a good way to screen for IPV.
A person who is in an abusive relationship may not be ready to disclose that fact to the doctor, and there are many potential reasons for this. There have been times when I have asked that question of a patient and despite hearing a “no” answer, still suspected there might be an issue. In that case, I tell the patient that if she or he ever wants to talk more about it, I am available to speak with, and will make a note to ask again on subsequent visits. I have had patients come back to tell me that there was abuse even the first time I asked, but they weren’t ready to discuss it. (The first time you meet a new doctor, it’s hard to trust; also, many people who are abused blame themselves, think the abuse will stop or do not know that the doctor has resources available to help).
When I do see someone who admits to being in an abusive relationship, I assure the patient that I am there to help, and that his or her safety is my goal. I convey that I know it can be hard to admit the abuse. I recognize that her or his situation is complex and that well-meaning advice to immediately leave may not be possible or may make the situation worse, so I avoid doing so except in very rare situations. I am fortunate to have an experienced social worker in my office who has dealt with many such situations and knows what services are available.