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Domestic violence victims urged: talk to your doctor

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Women suffering violence at the hands of their partners are being encouraged to speak with their family doctor amid concerns that many are failing to get the support they need.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler has joined with Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and AMA New South Wales President Dr Saxon Smith in launching the Share your story campaign to encourage victims of domestic violence to speak with their GP.

Professor Owler said doctors were at the domestic violence frontline, and saw the consequences of the physical and emotional abuse of women and children as part of their daily work.

“I remember when I started as a neurosurgeon at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, I was shocked – and in fact still am shocked – , at the number of cases that we deal with, the proportion of our work that is taken up with severe head injuries, devastating consequences of domestic violence,” the AMA President said. “Some of them die in hospital; the vast majority end up with severe disability and are in need of lifelong care”.

Ms Batty said the nation needed to do more to protect children from family violence.

“How does a child recover from the trauma of injury, psychological abuse, sexual abuse? How do they lead a life as adults when they are permanently affected by the trauma of being impacted by violence in their families?” she said. “The children are the future, and we are not doing a good enough job.

Ms Batty said that doctors had a big role in helping women in need.

Professor Owler said familiarity with the family doctor often made them the first port of call for those suffering abuse at home, even more so than specialist care.

“Everyone knows where to go if they want to see a doctor, but that’s not always the case with domestic violence services,” he said. “Domestic violence services are certainly there and ready to help, but they can be less visible than doctors in the community.”

The Share your story campaign is complemented by a program to assist family doctors in identifying and supporting patients suffering domestic violence. Earlier this year the AMA joined with the Law Council of Australia in producing a guide for doctors in how to broach the issue of domestic violence with their patients, both victims and perpetrators, as well as canvassing legal obligations and detailing support services.

The AMA President said that the ability to provide support and find appropriate help was “a vital role that doctors, nurses, care workers play, both in helping to identify, but also in trying to support victims – whether they’re women or children or anyone else, that are victims of this scourge in our community”.

At the launch, Professor Owler sought to draw particular attention to the plight of children, who he said often suffered lifelong effects of domestic violence.

“We see large numbers of children that present through our hospitals that unfortunately are victims of domestic violence, and they have a range of injuries, including head injuries, eye injuries and fractures, [that can] have a devastating impact on the rest of their lives,” the AMA President said.

He said non-accidental head injury, usually resulting in bleeding on the brain, was “very common” among children growing up in abusive households, and could lead to severe disability or other life-long impediments such as epilepsy and poor emotional control.

 “The other side of this is…that we have children that are just exposed to domestic violence or abuse, and that can have significant consequences as well, particularly from psychological perspectives.”

Between 2008 and 2010, 29 children were killed by a parent or step-parent, and Professor Owler said abuse by a parent or step-parent was the third most common cause of injury in children, after car accidents and accidental drowning.

 Adrian Rollins