The clear and heartening message from a pilot program at six California hospitals is that even a little training for staff members goes a long way toward helping the victims of domestic violence. Those victims constitute a lamentably large group: An estimated 4 million American women were physically abused by husbands or boyfriends in 1993 alone.
The program, conducted by the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund, focused on educating emergency room personnel to recognize and assist battered women. The fund installed the program at County-USC Medical Center in Los Angeles and at hospitals in San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento, Sonora and La Jolla. The results from the six-month trial are impressive.
When the program began, more than one-third of the 500 emergency room staffers surveyed reported that they either did not treat battered women or did not know how many they treated each month. Researchers feared these responses indicated that many doctors and nurses were missing evidence of domestic violence. On completion of the program, only 7% of emergency room personnel said they did not treat battered women or didn’t know how many such patients they had seen.
The lesson is that when you know what to look for, you can more easily recognize it. This knowledge is obviously key to the future well-being of domestic abuse victims because battering is often not an isolated event. The challenge for health care professionals has been to help victims break the cycle of abuse. Such intervention certainly saves money but, more important, it saves lives.
When the pilot program began, 43% of emergency room staffers said they were advising battered women about how to protect themselves from further abuse; that figure is now up to 65%.
The success of the project has prompted the San Francisco fund to launch a more ambitious program to train 1,000 health care workers at primary care clinics across the state. These efforts offer a real opportunity to make some gains against this nasty problem.