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AMA develops GP toolkit to help victims of family violence

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has urged caution in any attempt to make the reporting of family violence mandatory amid an anticipated surge in victims coming forward and seeking help given heightened national awareness of the issue.

Speaking at the launch of a joint AMA/Law Council of Australia toolkit providing guidance and resources for GPs dealing with instances of family violence, A/Professor Owler said that while it was mandatory to report child abuse, governments should be careful about extending this to include adults.

“It’s a complex issue and what you don’t want to do…is set up a system where you might deter people from coming forward and having a conversation with their GP,” the AMA President said. “What you say to the doctor is something that should be kept in confidence, except in very extreme circumstances. We need people to have confidence in actually being able to disclose to their GP that there may be an issue at home and feel safe about doing that.”

The toolkit, prepared by the AMA in consultation with the Law Council of Australia, gives GPs vital information on how to detect and discuss family violence, assess risk, understand legal obligations and provide details of support services and resources for victims and their children.

A/Professor Owler said GPs were often the first port of call for victims of family violence, so it was important that they knew how to discuss the issue and where to access the resources and information needed to help victims and their families.

“There is likely to be more people coming forward…and so it’s important that our GPs are prepared when people do come forward that they have the right resources and the right information to allow and assist them to prescribe the right treatment,” he said.

The pervasiveness of family violence has been underlined by Australian Bureau of Statistics/Australian Institute of Criminology research showing one in six women suffer physical or sexual violence at the hands of their current or former partner, and a quarter suffer emotional abuse.

In a sign of the extent to which family violence is underreported, the study, conducted in 2012, found 58 per cent of women had not reported the attack to police and almost a quarter had never sought advice or support.

The AMA President said family violence could be “a very uncomfortable and difficult issue”, not only for victims but also for GPs, who might have both the victim and the perpetrator as patients.

A/Professor Owler said one of the important features of the toolkit was that it started from the very basics, describing what GPs needed to look for to identify potential victims, and providing crucial advice on how to broach the issue in a way that made people safe and comfortable about talking of what was happening in their home.

He said often patients would see their doctor with an unrelated complaint, and the toolkit helped GPs to ask the right questions as a way of initiating the discussion.

Importantly, he added, the toolkit also talked about what should not be asked when someone disclosed they were a victim of family violence, such as asking ‘what might you have done to avoid this?’, which could be taken as implying blame.

Law Council of Australia President Duncan McConnel said the toolkit was an important step in improving the co-ordination of services to help victims of family violence, which was “not just a law and order issue. It’s a broader issue, and in particular it’s a health issue”.

Mr McConnel said one of the big barriers encountered by victims seeking help was the fact that they had to go through a “sort of revolving door of seeking help from different service, after different service, after different service. It’s been identified as a critical issue”.

He said it was important that doctors helping a victim of family violence knew how to get help and who to contact, including being able to identify safe houses, specialist legal services and other supports.

The Supporting parents experiencing family violence – a resource for medical practitioners toolkit can be downloaded at:  article/ama-family-violence-resource

Adrian Rollins