3 steps doctors should take when patients confide abuse

When patients trust their doctor, they are more likely to discuss and seek help for abuse.

The trusted relationship that can develop between a doctor and patient makes it more likely patients will confide in their physician.

“Recently, ‘Doc, I trust you,’ has been followed by stories of abuse,” Venis Wilder, M.D., a family physician who practices at a federally qualified health center in the Harlem area of New York City, wrote in Fresh Perspectives. “The spectrum is vast, including physical, emotional, sexual, mental and financial abuse and neglect. Regardless of type, the stories are painful. And words, I am sure, only minimally describe a person's feelings or experience.”

Here are some steps that Wilder recommends when a patient tells a doctor he or she has been abused:


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First, follow the law. In almost all states, doctors are mandated by law to report suspected or observed child mistreatment as well as elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, she says. Laws can vary by state.

Screen patients for abuse, including intimate partner violence. The American Academy of Family Physicians and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends clinicians screen women of childbearing age for abuse by a partner, she says. Some experts advise healthcare providers to also screen older adults and men in same-sex and heterosexual relationships. 

RELATED: Domestic violence: Hospitals must screen patients—and employees—for signs of abuse

Don’t let tough stories personally weigh you down. So that you don’t become a victim of the growing problem of physician burnout and stress, consider counseling, discussing the issue with a mentor or colleague, or releasing tension through activities such as meditation or writing, Wilder says.

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