Health care providers need to be aware of domestic abuse

This June, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency. He wasn’t talking about the rising cost of health insurance or the critical shortage of primary care physicians. He was citing a tripling of domestic violence homicides in the past two years in Massachusetts.

There have been 32 domestic violence deaths in Massachusetts this year so far, according to Jane Doe Inc. In 2007, there were 55. That translates to one life lost every week—the highest rate since the early 1990s. With the steep economic downturn, this epidemic will surely get worse. Couples under extensive financial strain have three times the rate of domestic violence as others, according to the US Department of Justice.

As health care providers, we see the awful effects of violence far more than we’d like. At the same time, we are in a unique position to help. We need to be sensitive, informed and responsible, because failure to recognize violence in the doctor’s office can have tragic results.

As an oral surgeon, one of us, Dr. Leslie Halpern, knows all too well that the majority of domestic violence injuries happen to the head and face. She once stitched up a woman’s face and mouth in the emergency room after her husband took to her with a box cutter because he didn’t like what she made for supper. Three days later, the woman was back in the hospital—dead—at the hands of her husband.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Lydia Rios sees how domestic violence affects the entire family. Abusive partners abuse their children as well at least half of the time. Post-traumatic stress and anxiety can jeopardize a child’s health well into adulthood and increase the risk of substance abuse.

We need to remain vigilant in detecting domestic violence. Only 9 percent of primary care physicians routinely screen for abuse, according to a study in the “Journal of the American Medical Association.” That number is far too low, and lives are lost in the balance.

We need to make it easy for our patients to get help. Even passing along a hotline number can connect people with shelters and resources. The state has SafeLink (877-785-2020), a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, free and multilingual hotline.

All health professionals need to be educated about the symptoms of domestic violence. Each of us needs to step up when we suspect a loved one is being abused. The Massachusetts Medical Society’s web site has free educational materials on how to prevent and intervene in cases of violence.

Mahatmas Gandhi wrote, “All society is held together by nonviolence, even as the Earth is held in her position by gravitation.” It never hurts to ask a friend if they need help. Let’s do our part to end domestic violence.

Dr. Leslie Halpern and Dr. Lydia Ross
Jamaica Plain

Leslie Halpern is a medical doctor, doctor of dental surgery, oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Lydia Rios is a medical doctor, master of public health, pediatrician, and is a board member of Respond, Inc. Both practice at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, located at Faulkner Hospital.

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