As a long-time anti-domestic violence advocate and activist, I firmly believe that coordinating both effective responses and prevention initiatives requires a community-based approach. From educators to social workers, businesses to criminal justice, males to females, youth to older generations, all must be involved in the efforts to address abuse. One group that can play a very important role in identifying victims, many of whom have never told anyone about their abuse and thus have never received assistance, is medical professionals. Oct. 8, 2014 is National Health Cares about Domestic Violence Day, a wonderful opportunity to provide more information about domestic violence to healthcare professionals and to encourage those who are already assisting in the campaign to end abuse.

Sponsored by Futures Without Violence, Health Cares about Domestic Violence Day helps raise awareness about the importance of screening for domestic violence. Numerous medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Psychological Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Health Care Organizations, and the Institute of Medicine, have recommended that medical professional at least screen female patients over the age of 14 to assess whether they have experienced abuse in the home. Screening can be as simple as four-to-six questions on a Likert scale of agreement/disagreement. Research has found that simply asking the questions, whether on a survey or through an interview, plays an important role in allowing victims to open up to their medical provider about the sensitive issue of abuse.

It is clear that domestic violence results in a variety of negative health outcomes, both in the short term and long term. In addition to injuries sustained during the abuse, physical and psychological abuse has been linked to increased risk of chronic neck and back pain, arthritis, migraines, chronic pelvic pain, sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse, among others. Victims often delay seeking treatment for other medical issues because they are not ready for others to notice the signs of abuse. These delays often exacerbate problems like asthma, diabetes and hypertension.

Abuse is not exclusive to adults. Teens experiencing dating violence also suffer from a variety of health effects, including increased risk of smoking, dangerous substance abuse, drug use, eating disorders, sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies, and suicide attempts.

Medical professionals also must be trained on what to do when the screening results in the identification of abuse. Some states require that physicians report abuse to the police while others do not require it. It is imperative that medical professionals stay up-to-date on the laws in their state so as to both be in compliance and to honor the wishes of victims, some of whom do not want abuse reported to authorities if that is a legal option. Establishing an office or hospital protocol, connecting with local victim service providers, and ensuring that all staff members are trained in how to talk to victims are other important steps.

I have conducted many trainings for physicians and other healthcare providers in Florida, which requires it for continuing medical education. I have found the training to be generally well received, and have learned that a lot of healthcare providers in South Florida are already screening for abuse and are tremendous advocates in the movement to end domestic violence. I applaud these individuals and am hopeful that this National Health Cares about Domestic Violence Day will prompt even more people to become aware of the importance of screening as part of a community response to abuse.

(Finley teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.)

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