Domestic Abuse Spikes During COVID-19: The Role Healthcare Professionals Can Play

By Kayla Matthews, HealthIT writer and technology enthusiast, Tech Blog
Twitter: @ProductiBytes

The COVID-19 pandemic led many officials to establish shelter-in-place orders for their jurisdictions. These regulations intend to keep people safe and curb the spread of the virus. What happens when someone’s home may be a dangerous place? That’s the reality faced by many people subjected to domestic abuse by their partners or other family members.

Police forces and domestic violence support agencies around the world report increases in calls for help as lockdowns give people no choice but to stay in confined spaces with their alleged perpetrators.

Stay Alert for the Signs
Whether you’re working in a medical facility or engaging in a telemedicine call, look for the signs of possible intimate partner violence. For example, physical symptoms you can see may include bruising, scrapes or a disheveled appearance.

Domestic violence does not only extend to physical harm, however. Some violent partners play mind games and wreck a victim’s self-esteem. Others exert such tremendous control that the person in distress cannot manage their finances or wardrobe choices.

While doing a telemedicine call, you may not see signs of physical abuse. However, what if you hear someone yelling in the background who tells your patient to come to them immediately and calls them an offensive name? That could be a sign of something amiss, especially since an abuser’s goal is typically to wear the victim down so much that they comply with any order given.

Understand that children experience the effects of domestic violence, too. Statistics indicate that there are nearly 700,000 children abused in the U.S. each year. Someone engaging in domestic abuse could hit a child or cause other physical effects that medical imaging equipment picks up. Evaluating the situation is not as straightforward in a telemedicine situation, however.

Some perpetrators try to get children to side with them or make them stay in the room to watch the other parent receive abuse. Thus, you may spot possible problems in a pediatric telemedicine call or in-person visit if the child tells you they feel scared or unsafe at home. The same goes when treating an adult. If someone tells you, “I really need this appointment to end soon. My husband will be home any minute, and he’ll be angry that I haven’t started dinner,” that’s cause for concern.

Create a Safe, Nonjudgmental Environment
Patients experiencing domestic abuse may leave health care settings if they perceive judgment from the provider. Creating a safe space increases the chances of the patient confiding about their situations.

People going through domestic abuse frequently conceal the root causes of their injuries or illnesses. A person may blame their broken ribs on being clumsy and falling down stairs, hiding the fact that they shattered those bones after being thrown against a wall. Another common scenario is that a perpetrator will restrict someone’s access to routine medical care or treatment, meaning they cannot keep chronic conditions well-controlled.

These situations may mean you see repeat patients. Avoid saying something like, “You need to watch where you’re going. This is the second time in six months you’ve visited the emergency room with a broken bone!” Realize there may be something more going on, and that people may not tell you the whole story right away.

Become Familiar With Supportive Resources
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, support workers are still available to help people experiencing domestic abuse. Take the time to become familiar with local, state and national helplines patients can call for specialized advice. Those organizations solely deal with these situations, so they’re the best resources to provide.

State-based differences dictate the kind of help available to domestic abuse victims during the coronavirus, but support personnel will be well-versed on the specifics. For example, in New Jersey, a member of the police force has the authority to connect people with emergency judges who can issue temporary restraining orders during COVID-19. Such a document could give a person distance from their abuser by mandating that the perpetrator reside elsewhere.

Recognize the Worth of Telemedicine for Survivors
Once people escape domestic violence situations, the effects of the abuse can last for years. Telemedicine services can be instrumental in encouraging survivors to seek care, particularly if they fear seeing their partner in public or going through other triggering events outside the house. As a healthcare provider, you can recommend telemedicine to patients who may feel afraid to seek help through traditional means, including those recovering from domestic violence.

Awareness Can Spur Action
Domestic abuse thrives when people try to ignore it and assume it is not their problem. You can empower patients who may be going through it by knowing the telltale signs and giving them useful resources for help.