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Domestic violence amid COVID-19: Helping your patients from afar


 

Roger R., MD, a primary care physician from Philadelphia, set up a telemedicine appointment with a 24-year-old female patient who was experiencing headaches and was worried she might have COVID-19.

An incident of domestic viokence is shown, with a man threatening his partner. Photodisc/Thinkstock

During the televisit, Dr. R. noticed that “Tonya” (not her real name) had a purplish bruise under her right eye. When asked how she got the bruise, Tonya said she had bumped into a dresser. The physician suspected abuse. He then heard a man’s voice in the background and thought it might belong to the abuser. “Is this a good time for you to talk?” he asked Tonya.

Tonya hesitated.

“When might be a better time?”

Tonya suggested an alternate time, and the physician called her then. During the visit, she shared that her fiancé, a car salesman who was also sheltering at home, was punching her.

“He always had a bad temper. Once he shoved me, but he’s never hit me before. And when he was upset, we used to go out to eat and he calmed down. Now, we’re stuck inside, we can’t even get away from each other to go to work, and he’s getting scary,” she told the doctor.

The physician asked if she would like to be connected with a domestic violence counselor. When Tonya agreed, he called Jessica DuBois Palardy, a licensed social worker and the program supervisor at STOP Intimate Partner Violence, a Philadelphia-based collaborative project of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Lutheran Settlement House’s Bilingual Domestic Violence Program.

A ‘horrifying’ trend

Tonya’s story is not unique. A United Nations report shows that there has been a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” linked to “lockdowns imposed by the governments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The United States is no exception – 2,345 calls were placed to the National Domestic Violence Hotline during March 16–April 6, 2020.

Carole Warshaw, MD, director of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health in Chicago, said, “We know that intimate partner violence is increasing among people sheltering at home, and that abuse has become more severe.”

Even in nonabusive situations, being confined together at close quarters, often amid family stress and financial hardship, can be wearing, and tempers can flare. In an abusive relationship, “the main contributor to violence during shelter-in-place restrictions is that the isolation gives abusers more opportunities for controlling their partners, who have fewer options for accessing safety and support,” Dr. Warshaw said.

It is critical to “approach every clinical encounter knowing that domestic violence may be at play,” she emphasized.

Physicians might be the most important lifeline

Physicians are already facing myriad COVID-19–related challenges, and having another concern to keep in mind may be daunting.

“We’re in uncharted territory and we’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this time, how to practice medicine via phone and video conferences, and how to deal with the financial repercussions of the pandemic – not to mention concern for the health of our families,” said Peter F. Cronholm, MD, associate professor of family medicine and community health at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. “So maintaining vigilance is often difficult. Nevertheless, it’s important not to let this critical issue fall to the wayside.”

Marcella Nyachogo, MSW, a licensed social worker and assistant director of the Bilingual Domestic Violence Program, noted that physicians and other health care providers “may be the only people the patient interacts with, since the abuser may cut the survivor off from family and friends. And because the survivor isn’t leaving the house, he or she doesn’t have an opportunity to interact with coworkers or others – which makes health care providers the most important lifeline.”

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