Screening for intimate partner violence and abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults


The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has released updated recommendations regarding screening for intimate partner violence and abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults. While their previous recommendations in 2004 gave intimate partner violence screening an "I" recommendation, meaning that the evidence was inconclusive regarding the balance of benefits and intimate partner violence harms, the current recommendation has been upgraded to a "B" recommendation, meaning there is moderate certainty that there is a net benefit from screening. This puts the USPSTF recommendation in alignment with those of most other groups, including the American Medical Association and the *American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Forms of abuse

The recommendations regarding intimate partner violence in these guidelines refer to physical, sexual, or psychological abuse of women of reproductive age by a current or former partner or spouse. The issue of intimate partner violence is important because research shows that approximately 31% of women and 26% of men have experienced intimate partner violence within their lifetime, and that intimate partner violence is usually undetected. It is also estimated that these numbers are likely to be low because of underreporting. In one large study, the 1-year incidence of abuse was 8% within the last year and 15% within the last 5 years. Approximately 1.5%-5% of pregnant women report being abused. Among older and vulnerable adults, the rate of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse; neglect; or financial exploitation is estimated to be between 2% and 10%.

Ava Skolnik and Dr. Amy Clouse

Intimate partner violence has important and long-lasting effects on victims. Harmful effects include immediate injuries resulting from direct trauma as well as long-term physical and mental health consequences. Long-term physical consequences include sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and worse pregnancy outcomes, as well as higher rates of chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, migraine headaches, and disability. Long-term mental health consequences include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and a higher rate of suicide.

Screening of women

Intimate partner violence in women can be detected with a high level of certainty. There are specific factors that can influence the chances that an individual is at risk for intimate partner violence and can alert clinicians to have increased vigilance for abuse. These risk factors have four categories. The first category is individual, focusing on an individual’s self-esteem. The second is relationship, which focuses on marriage conflict and stability within relationships. Third is community, which is looking at socioeconomic background. Fourth are the societal factors of traditional gender roles.

Many screening instruments exist that have been carefully studied. For instance, the HITS instrument, available in English and Spanish, is a four-item questionnaire that asks about being hurt, insulted, screamed at, or threatened. In one study, it had a sensitivity of 86% and a specificity of 99% for detecting intimate partner violence. The interval for screening is not clear.


Once intimate partner violence among women is detected, many approaches are available to help these women. For example, one trial was set up to test the effectiveness of a mentoring support group vs. usual care. All women who entered this trial had discussed intimate partner violence with their primary care physician. After the intervention program, the women who were in the intervention group had significantly reduced scores of abuse as opposed to the comparison group. Another example is a study of pregnant women who reported abuse, who were then randomized to a counseling intervention vs. usual care. Women in the counseling group had decreased pregnancy coercion and were more likely to discontinue an unhealthy or unsafe relationship.

Approaches vary from counseling to social work interventions brought to peoples’ homes, information cards, referral to community services, and mentoring support services. It appears that varied interventions decrease recurrent abuse. There is no reported harm in screening for intimate partner violence. It is necessary for the primary care doctor to be aware of the laws specific to intimate partner violence reporting and privacy within the doctor’s specific region.

Elderly and vulnerable adults

In contrast to screening for intimate partner violence in women, there is a lack of evidence for abuse screening in elderly and vulnerable adult populations. There is a lack of evidence on the benefits of detection and, surprisingly, a lack of evidence on the benefits of early intervention. It is also possible that the harms of detecting abuse in this group may be different, although the risk appears to be small. Some potential harm includes shame, guilt, fear of retaliation, and abandonment by caretakers who have been accused of abuse.

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