Domestic and intimate partner violence (IPV) is prevalent and occurs much more frequently than is reported, detected or even suspected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, “about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner and reported an IPV-related impact during their lifetime.”1 (See box, below.)
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Explore This IssueApril 2019
Physicians are in a unique position, having a privileged perspective into a patient’s life not shared by others, and thus, have an opportunity to detect domestic violence. Chronic illness is associated with an increased risk of financial strain, relationship stress and depression, all of which could contribute to an increased risk of domestic neglect and abuse. It is quite possible, therefore, that you may encounter a situation in your rheumatology practice in which you either believe abuse has occurred or you at least ask the question.
This patient’s clinical scenario is an example of intimate partner strain and generates questions in several dimensions. First, what are the legal aspects of the case, and what are the requirements of the physician under federal and state laws?
Domestic violence is broadly addressed in several federal laws, including the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.2 State-specific laws also exist and “require the reporting of specified injuries and wounds, and suspected abuse or domestic violence for individuals being treated by a healthcare professional.”3
Every state except for Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming has laws regarding mandatory reporting of violence.3 These laws vary significantly; you should become knowledgeable with the laws in your state. For example, there are states in which only head and spinal injuries treated by medical providers must be reported (Alabama), states in which reporting is required only for violence caused by guns or knives (Mississippi), and states, such as California, which have more extensive reporting requirements, protocols, screening and training for healthcare professionals.3,4-6
In addition to the legal aspects you must consider, the question of ethical responsibility to the patient is raised. As is encapsulated in the guiding ethical principle of beneficence, physicians are required to do first and foremost what is in the best interest of the patient.7 This ethical principle is coupled with the principle of non-maleficence, of doing no harm.7 The physician’s ethical duty is deeply ingrained from the time we are medical students; it is unequivocal that these guiding ethical principles apply even in the absence of established law. In a state in which no statutes govern mandatory reporting of domestic violence, sufficient suspicion of partner violence may invoke a physician’s ethical obligation—albeit not a legal one—to report their suspicion to the governing body.
Decision making becomes increasingly complex when ethical and legal considerations clash. When such conflicts arise, you must carefully determine which guiding principles carry the most weight. For example, you could envision a case in which mandatory reporting is not in the patient’s best interest (i.e., if reporting leads to increased violence at home or disengagement with the treating physician or with the healthcare system). If a patient argues against mandatory reporting for these reasons, then the principle of patient autonomy may become most relevant. Many would agree that legal requirements would supersede the principle of beneficence in this case; however, situations certainly exist in which no obvious answer is apparent. In these ambiguous cases, it is often helpful to enlist the assistance of an ethics review board, which are established at many medical institutions.