Domestic violence amid COVID-19: Helping your patients from afar


COVID-19 as a weapon of abuse

Carey Watson, MD, regional medical director of the Family Violence Prevention Program at Kaiser Permanente in northern California, points to a disturbing trend in COVID-19–related abuse.

“Unfortunately, I’m hearing more and more accounts of how the illness itself can be one more weapon in the abuser’s arsenal,” she said.

Experts say that increasingly, abusers are claiming that their partner, who is employed in an “essential” job outside the home, is carrying the virus, and they are using this as a means of control and manipulation.

This is especially true of abusive partners of health care providers, Dr. Watson noted. She recounted the story of a divorced nurse whose husband did not allow her to have contact with their children, allegedly out of concern that she might have COVID-19, and would threaten her with a gun when she protested.

“It is important to keep this abusive tactic in mind, not only when dealing with patients but also with fellow physicians and health care professionals, and check in to see if everything is okay – especially if they seem particularly stressed out or distant,” Dr. Watson recommended.

Trust your clinical gut

How can you tell if your patients might be experiencing abuse when you’re not seeing them in person?

Pay attention to subtle signals and “trust your clinical gut when something doesn’t feel right,” Ms. Nyachogo advised.

If a patient’s demeanor is jittery or anxious or if someone next to him or her is answering all the questions or interrupting the visit, these could be red flags.

Dr. Cronholm added that telemedicine visits offer a “rare window into a patient’s home life that would not be available in an office visit.” For example, a house in disarray, the presence of broken objects, or the presence of another person hovering in the background suggests the need for further exploration.

The starting point of screening and intervention is to recognize that any domestic violence situation is potentially explosive. “The main thing for all providers to keep in mind is ‘first, do no harm,’ ” Ms. Nyachogo emphasized.

“Our agency has been working for years with medical professionals in how to screen and connect folks with help most effectively and safely, and – although the specific situations posed by COVID are new – the overall approach is the same, which is to proceed with caution in how you approach the subject and how you make referrals,” she said.

Begin by asking if it is a convenient time to talk.

“This question takes the onus off the patient, who may not know how to communicate that she has no privacy or is in the middle of an argument,” explained Elsa Swenson, program manager of Home Free community program, which serves individuals experiencing domestic violence. The program is part of Minnesota-based Missions Inc. Programs, which serves those experiencing domestic abuse and chemical dependency.

If the patient indicates that it isn’t a convenient time to talk, find out when would be a better time. “This might be difficult for busy physicians and may not be what they’re accustomed to when calling a patient at home, but the patient’s circumstances are unknown to you, so it’s essential to organize around their ability to talk,” Ms. Swenson noted.

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