I can still recall the first time, as a doctor, I saw a woman who had been injured by her husband*. He had thrown the hot pot she was using to cook their family dinner at her and I was working in the emergency department when she came in.
She wanted a female doctor and I was one of only a couple of women working that evening, so I sat with her in the shower in the busy emergency department while we irrigated her burns under the cold water.
She told me how she was worried he wouldn’t even let her call the ambulance to let her come to hospital to seek medical care. Thinking of her now, I wonder what happened to her. I hope that she’s safe.
One woman every week, on average, is murdered by either her current or former partner and over 72,000 women and 34,000 children are homeless as a result of violence in a place where they should be safe.
An astonishing 1 in 6 women exposed to violence from the age of 15. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, as well as women who are in tenuous financial circumstances, the risks are even higher.
And while some men experience intimate partner violence, women and children are disproportionately affected.
The single biggest threat to a young woman’s health in Australia is violence. Intimate partner violence causes more death, illness and disability than anything else for women ages 25-44 years old in this country. This is where doctors are stepping in.
Earlier this year, Dr Karen Williams, a psychiatrist from the Wollongong, started the group called Doctors Against Violence Towards Women. Dr Williams specialises in trauma care and sees huge numbers of women who have experienced violence or other forms of abuse and is acutely aware of the gaps we have in the prevention, medical and legal support for these women as well as the longer-term consequences of intimate partner violence.
Dr Williams is not alone in her experiences. Most medical doctors will have seen intimate partner violence in one way or another during their careers. Some of us would not have recognised that was the case, whereas other times, we may have missed an opportunity to help because we missed the signs or weren’t quite sure how to offer help.
In some cases, despite our best efforts to help, we have been unable to get a woman the care she needs despite dozens of phone calls to outside agencies and legal avenues. Missed opportunities or an inability to help is no longer acceptable in the face of this public health crisis.
The group encompasses over 300 members who are doctors, many of whom work in front line services around Australia, in many different specialties from general practice, to surgery, emergency medicine and psychiatry.
Many of us see women who have suffered unspeakable traumas on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. The predominantly female doctors each bring their own expertise and experiences to the group. It is a prime example of the strength of a group and this group of doctors is using that strength for the good of other women.
After the murder of Sydney dentist, Dr Preethi Reddy, Williams and the group organised a number of vigils for Dr Reddy. It was a reminder of how violence can strike any one of us and how much we need to do to keep our women safe.
Doctors Against Violence Towards Women won’t just organise vigils but educate and lobby stakeholders, including their own representative bodies including the AMA to fight for the needs of women who have been victims of violence.
An estimated 30% of women experiencing violence seek help from their general practitioner. In cases where injury is severe enough to warrant medical care, doctors are charged with taking that sensitive information and turning it into safety for that woman and her family.
Women and children who have been exposed to violence often need long-term complex trauma care including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
We need to do better at supporting these women, but we also need the resources and training to be able to do so. Some of that comes from improving our own training and a lot of it comes from access to specialised care from social workers, psychologists and trauma counsellors. Doctors who have tried to help women access these services have come up against barriers, time after time, and we are no longer willing to ignore this.
Domestic violence is a national health crisis that deserves more attention, more resources, more funding and specialised care than it currently receives.
Doctors Against Violence Towards Women is determined to leverage our position and expertise as people who are charged with ensuring people’s health and turn that into better training for front line responders to providing specialised and ongoing trauma care to those whose lives have been irrevocably changed by violence.
Domestic violence is an urgent public health issue and as part of the medical profession we have an important role to play in tackling this issue. Our health care system is an important place where violence against women is discovered and we must demand better from that system to prevent and manage violence against women.
We will do better for our patients who trust us to care for them and, in turn, we will demand better support from government and industry alike to save the lives of women.
*Details of this story have been modified to protect the patient’s privacy.