In this 'Women's Health' article for Medical Observer, Professor Kelsey Hegarty, GP and Chair, Family Violence Prevention at University of Melbourne and RWH discusses what GPs can do to help victims of family violence.
Jean Hailes is proud to provide a monthly column in the medical newspaper, Medical Observer. Designed to give GPs and health professionals a short informative summary of important women's health topics and conditions, these articles provide practical information to inform and enhance clinical practice.
Domestic and family violence affects all types of people, regardless of gender, culture or sexuality. It is complex and there is no quick-fix solution.
Health practitioners are the group of professionals most often told about family violence, even more than police.
It has been estimated that full-time GPs see up to five women per week who have experienced some form of intimate partner abuse — physical, emotional, sexual — in the past 12 months.
Healthcare providers are therefore key to helping women and children on a pathway to safety and good health.
In 2018, the WHO adopted a global plan of action to strengthen the role of the health system to address interpersonal violence, in particular against women and girls. Australia was one of 44 member states to adopt the resolution, which aims to strengthen health service delivery and improve the capacity of health professionals to respond to violence.
Intimate partner abuse is one of the leading contributors to death and disability for women of child-bearing age, and has major effects on the health of children.
Most intimate partner abuse victims are women in heterosexual relationships, but abuse can also occur in same-sex relationships.
Domestic and family violence damages a person's mental and physical health and can take the form of:
Broadly speaking, health practitioners can assist with:
Specifically, GPs can assist by identifying predisposing risk factors, noting early signs and symptoms.
They can then provide a response that includes assessing for violence and safety within families, managing consequences of abuse to minimise morbidity and mortality, being aware of and using referral pathways and evidence-based patient and services resources, and advocating for changes that promote a violence- free society.
The WHO suggests all health practitioners be trained in first-line support of LIVES — Listening, Inquiring about needs, Validating experience, Enhancing safety and providing Support.
Studies show abuse is associated with depression, anxiety, other psychological disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual dysfunction, functional gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, chronic pain and multiple somatic symptoms. Sexual abuse has also been linked with chronic pelvic pain.
Women are unlikely to take the first steps to disclose interpersonal violence, but evidence shows they are open to being asked about their safety at home. So, if abuse is suspected, it is important to ask questions in a sensitive way. Patients need to be encouraged to discuss abuse and to see it as affecting their health.
It's important to remember that most women who disclose they are experiencing family violence are safe to return home that day, so unless there is an imminent threat, an initial discussion that flags an intention to follow-up at a later appointment is an appropriate response.
Some possible questions to ask and statements to make if you suspect intimate partner abuse include:
A woman may not wish to disclose for a variety of reasons, such as fear of reprisal from the partner, feelings of shame and humiliation, and not thinking she will be believed. Therefore, disclosure is rarely immediate and often sporadic. Women may reveal partially, then get frightened by disclosing and disappear for some time and then disclose at another time and place.
Referral or connection to specialist services should be offered if disclosure occurs.
If a woman does disclose, she may not yet be ready to access services. In this case, it is important to validate her experience with statements such as:
An initial assessment should also be made of the patient's safety. This may be as simple as checking if it is safe for her (and her children) to return home. A more detailed risk assessment that can be done at a subsequent visit will include questions about escalation of abuse, the content of threats, and direct and indirect abuse of any children.
- Health practitioners are the professionals most often told about family violence, even more than police
- GPs can identify predisposing risk factors, noting early signs and symptoms of violence
- Evidence shows women are open to being asked about their safety at home
- GPs can provide a first-line response and offer referral pathways and evidence-based patient resources
For more inforrmation, try this webinar for Health Professionals: Introduction to Family Violence.
Professor Kelsey Hegarty is an academic general practitioner who holds the joint Chair in Family Violence Prevention at the University of Melbourne and the Royal Women's Hospital.