Intimate Partner Violence Screening: Why It Is Inconsistent and How It Can Be Improved

September 5, 2012 at 12:59 am 5 comments

I was curious why Lahey Clinic, a nonprofit group practice outside of Boston, started asking patients, “Are you safe at home?” during intake. Trying to find this out turned into an exploration of the inconsistent state of intimate partner violence screening in the US.

 “Are You Safe At Home?”

The first time I was asked “Are you safe at home?” during patient intake at Lahey Clinic, I was surprised that such a personal question was asked in such an impersonal way – by a healthcare professional hunched over a laptop and not making eye contact with me (which inspired a blog post on the role of eye contact in physician-patient communication).  It seemed like the only purpose of the question was to check a box on an online form to show that they had screened for intimate partner violence (IPV), the au courant term for domestic abuse. When and why was “Are you safe at home?” added to Lahey’s patient intake process?

Finding the answer to my questions turned out to be surprisingly elusive:

  • When was “Are you safe at home?” added to patient intake?
    • Is it used for all ages and genders?
    • Is the question included in the EMR?
    • Is it required by law or by accrediting agencies?
  • Why was IPV screening added to patient intake?
    • Who asks the question and what training are they given about how to ask? Are they screening for IPV in other ways?
    • What wording and method of asking is most effective?
    • What protocols are in place if a patient answers in the negative or reacts with a response other than “Yes”?
    • Has data been collected on the answers and on the actions taken, or on the impact on detecting IPV?

I became interested in the answers, not just for Lahey, but for all hospitals and doctor’s practices.

IPV Screening May Be Required for Hospital Accreditation

I asked a nurse practitioner at Lahey Clinic, who said “Are you safe at home?” was added about two years ago and was asked of both men and women. She thought it was required as part of The Joint Commission’s (JCAHO) accreditation process and that when Lahey is up for review they need to show that all patients were asked. The nurse practitioner said that she did not know of a formal protocol if a patient said they were not safe at home and would have to decide on the spot to notify the police or social services. She further said that some patients get angry when asked because they see it as an invasion of privacy, and she speculated that these strong reactions might indicate a problem.

I learned more about JCAHO, which certifies hospitals and other medical facilities based on adherence to quality standards. Lahey was last accredited in November 2011, and the full report is available as are the accountability measures, which focus on patient safety initiatives, but not on IPV (that I could find). The results from the Survey of Patients’ Hospital Experiences were also available. (Since this was more recent than what was reported on Lahey’s site, I wondered if people actually check hospital survey results or for JCAHO accreditation. My curiosity led me to How to choose a hospital where JCAHO was listed as one of four other sources of information about hospitals to check besides Consumer Reports’ own ratings). Lahey’s commitment to IPV goes beyond the screening question, as indicated by their provision of Domestic Violence Resources as part of patient information and their Domestic Violence Initiative. Other Greater Boston hospital websites I looked at did not provide this information or it was more buried in their site.

Government Agencies Recommend IPV Prevention and Screening

JCAHO’s website led me to patient safety initiatives from The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and to an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, Clinical Preventive Services for Women: Closing the Gaps, that recommends to the US Department of Health and Human Services that women’s preventive services include screening and counseling for interpersonal and domestic violence in a culturally sensitive and supportive manner.

As early as 1992, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued non-binding guidelines that advised doctors to routinely question female patients about domestic violence and that they should consider the possibility of domestic abuse if patients provided “unlikely stories for how sustained an injury.” The guidelines addressed the actions a physician should take before the patient leaves the office. More recently, in November, 2007, AMA Policy E-2.02 Physicians’ Obligations in Preventing, Identifying, and Treating Violence and Abuse was adopted. It included the identification, treatment, and reporting of abuse and mentions the need to extend this to emotional abuse or neglect and to “patients who do not belong to population groups that are traditionally believed to be at risk of abuse”. Specifically, it said that:

Physicians should routinely inquire about physical, sexual, and psychological abuse as part of the medical history. Physicians should also consider abuse as a factor in the presentation of medical complaints because patients’ experiences with interpersonal violence or abuse may adversely affect their health status or ability to adhere to medical recommendations.

Another AMA report that referred to the 2007 guidelines stated that “Research results indicate, however, a high rate of missed opportunities for patient identification in clinical settings.”

About 25% of Woman Are Victims of IPV at Some Time

Amy LaVertu, MLS, an Information Services Librarian at the Hirsh Health Sciences Library at Tufts University, conducted searches to help me with my IPV research. (The use of multiple terms, including intimate partner violence, partner violence, domestic violence, and domestic abuse, made searching more difficult for both Amy and me.) Amy found out about the mandatory reporting laws that some states like California have that require health practitioners to report any known or suspected abuse but do not specify screening processes. Amy also found data about the incidence of IPV; US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) reported, “It is hard to know exactly how many women experience IPV because it is not always reported. However, it is thought that between 1.3 and 5.3 million women experience IPV every year. About 25 percent of women experience IPV at some time during their lives.” This highlighted the extent of the problem as well as the need for consistent reporting, and made me yet again wonder what happens to the screening data from Lahey and other institutions.

IPV Screening Takes Many Forms

The recommendations about screening did not specify the wording or timing of screening. Through searches I located many patient intake forms that included the question “Are you safe at home” One was from Fenway Health in Boston, so I contacted Chris Viveiros, a former student, who is Fenway’s Associate Director of Communications. Chris found out from his colleagues that the online form “isn’t Fenway’s actual patient intake form. ‘The Fenway Guide to LGBT Health’ is a medical textbook that Fenway produced and published in conjunction with the American College of Physicians and the form was included in that textbook as a model form that others can adopt.” Chris checked with Fenway’s medical and behavioral health departments, and found that neither department includes that question on their patient intake form. Fenway’s Violence Recovery Program coordinator elaborated, “The Behavioral Health forms actually ask a series of questions about potential partner abuse developed from the screening tool the Violence Recovery Program uses to assess domestic violence.” Instead of “Are you safe at home?”, for over five years they have used a series of direct questions about what a person may be experiencing.

Another former student, Niranjan Karnik, MD, PhD, said that the recognition in the 1970s and 1980s of domestic violence as a public health issue is what led to the interest in screening. He guessed that each hospital creates their own intake forms, and pointed out that at University of Chicago Medicine, where he practices, “there are different intake forms for each clinic or department. In psychiatry we do not ask this question in this form; instead we tend to screen for childhood abuse as well as present abuse under the general rubric of past psychiatric history or social history.” Niranjan summarized my pursuit perfectly, saying “One over-arching issue to consider is how decentralized and fractured the US health care system is so that there is not one answer to these questions but many depending on individual institutional histories.”

Evidence That IPV Screening Works

Wanting to learn more about the accuracy, efficiency, and acceptability of screening processes, I read a systematic review update of the USPTF’s report on IVP screening in the Annals of Internal Medicine that states:

In conclusion, screening instruments designed for health care settings can accurately identify women experiencing IPV. Screening women for IPV could reduce IPV and improve health outcomes depending on the population screened and outcome measured, although effectiveness trials have important limitations. Screening has minimal adverse effects, but some women experience discomfort, loss of privacy, emotional distress, and concerns about further abuse.

Since I had initially been concerned about eye contact when screening, I was particularly interested in the comparison of delivery methods; the review stated that “higher rates of IPV disclosure resulting from self-administered methods than face-to-face questioning. Computerized screening increases rates of IPV discussion, disclosure, and service provision and is more acceptable for patients.” I wasn’t sure how these results fit with the findings in a JAMA article on the effect of computerized screening for partner violence on physical and mental health that concluded: “Among women receiving care in primary care clinics, providing a partner violence resource list with or without screening did not result in improved health.” Clearly more research needs to be done on screening effectiveness. I further wondered if any research on screening methods looked at the research reported in “The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places” by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Computers Can Teach Us About Human Relationships” by Clifford Nass, and other research on how people relate to technology.

What Helps People Who Are Being Abused?

When I spoke to Libby Bradshaw, DO, MS, my colleague in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, she focused on what most helps people who are being abused. As an ER physician, Libby used the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) to assess which stage the person was at. (The five stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.) At the precontemplation stage, she said, one can raise  awareness and help people identify themselves as victims. Libby would say to someone she suspected was a victim of abuse, “I’m concerned about your safety and anyone’s safety who has injuries like yours” to open a door to disclosure. Another colleague, Marcia M. Boumil, MS, JD, LL.M., agreed with Libby and talked about the value of deflection and repetition. Both Libby and Marcia said that it is important to be sensitive to sending someone home with literature and that a wallet card is often better than something larger.

Tara Montgomery, Director, Health Partnerships & Impact at Consumer Reports, sent me The Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse paper, Building Bridges between Domestic Violence Advocates and Health Care Providers, which promotes collaborations between domestic violence advocates and health care providers that answer questions including: “Will this program or policy make battered women safer?” and “Will this program or policy make all women safer?” (The paper, written in 1999, uses terminology, like “battered women”, that is rarely used today.)

IPV Prevention and Screening

We have moved beyond the notion of “battered women” to include both physical and emotional abuse and to acknowledge that this is a public health problem that crosses all boundaries and must be taken seriously because, as Libby pointed out, victims of abuse have been killed. Many organizations are focusing on prevention, notably Healthy People 2020, which includes, as developmental objectives, the reduction of physical violence, sexual violence, psychological abuse, and stalking by current or former intimate partners.

A component of prevention is increasing awareness, which, as I learned through my research, is being done through traditional approaches (posters, flyers on bathroom stalls, brochures, and wallet cards) and more recent ones (websites, social media such as CDC’s VetoViolence campaign on Facebook, app challenges such as Ending Violence @ Home, Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and Domestic Violence Awareness Month). Libby was on the board of directors of Jane Doe Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Abuse. Their website has a “Leave this site quickly” tab, acknowledging that someone viewing the site might not be in a safe situation, and extensive information on how to find help. While some of the site is focused on women, they balance the need to be inclusive while being specific enough to provide helpful services.

I returned to Libby’s excellent point about what best helps victims of IPV reach and move past the precontemplative stage of TTM to the action stage. From what I learned from Niranjan about University of Chicago Medicine, from Chris about  Fenway Health, and from the nurse practitioner about Lahey Clinic, it seems that the use and wording of a screening question is based on, as Niranjan put it, “local practice and perceived needs”. Everything I learned leads me to believe that more standardized, evidence-based processes screening processes are needed. If screening instruments work, as the Annals of Internal Medicine review found, then what is the best wording to use to elicit a disclosure and the best delivery method (and does eye contact increase disclosure)?

Could more standardized screening processes lead to better reporting? The many constituents, including JCAHO, AMA, USPHS, CDC, hospitals, advocacy groups, and providers, differ in their goals and how they shape practice patterns. (I would like to make a flow chart showing where IPV decisions are made and the paths through which they reach institutions, health care providers, and patients.)

“We Do Not Have the Ability to Know Everything”

Niranjan said, “Invariably organizations are forced to make choices and what to ask and how much to dig because we do not have the ability to know everything. Who makes these choices about what is on a form is often less clear, and that opacity is what you found along your journey. A clerk may be tasked with creating a form, or a committee of physicians and nurses. There is little in the way of standard of practice for the development of medical infrastructure (I use this term in the broadest sense to include forms, apps, programs, charts, physical space and technology), and yet there is so much of the outcome that infrastructure determines.”

Healthcare professionals have a unique opportunity to identify IPV early to break the cycle of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. Requiring IPV screening in all states and all hospitals and doctor’s practices is a huge step in the right direction. But, in the spirit of evidence-based medicine, more research must be done to determine the specific IPV screening procedures and protocols that are most effective in detecting IPV and helping victims of abuse.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1.  |  December 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    This site is a leading resource for information about the Jim Yang Children Learning Reading PDF book and complete reading program that uses phonemic awareness and fun, engaging rhymes and stories to teach your child superior reading comprehension.

  • 2. Faculty Of Medicine  |  October 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing this precious information. I really appropriate it.

  • 3. gold account  |  October 3, 2012 at 5:07 am

    Violence, trauma, sexual abuse, and other forms of abuse affect our health and can have long term impacts on physical and mental health. They also have a greater impact on women than men. For example, women are more likely than men to experience violence from people they know, including intimate partners. Some women worry about their children’s and their own safety because home is not a safe place. Violence and trauma can impact physical and mental health in the short and long term.

  • 4. askgoodquestions  |  September 7, 2012 at 2:36 am

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. It illustrates clearly the complexity behind a seemingly simple change in practice. It also points to to the need to think clearly about what should aim for as outcomes from such a small, but important change. Thanks for your work on this.

  • 5. Rachelle  |  September 6, 2012 at 1:05 am

    Hi Lisa – what comes to mind for me when I read this is that the screening emphasis is on partner violence (which may in fact be the source for most domestic violence) however there are also many other areas, such as violence perpetrated by a parent, sibling, or child. Elder abuse is an area which I think also needs to be adequately addressed.


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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa:

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