Many doctors are reluctant to probe patients about possible domestic abuse, but studies show that merely asking a battered woman if she has been abused can help her. Barbara Gerbert, director of the Center for Health Improvement and Prevention at UC San Francisco tells the New York Times, "Just by asking, you may be planting a seed for change." Even years later a woman might remember her doctor reaching out to her and be moved to ask for help. Experts are recommending that doctors now screen for domestic abuse even when there is no physical evidence, as domestic violence is, "more common in women than many diseases for which doctors regularly check, including breast and colon cancer, and its health risks are well documented," according to Dr. Erin Marcus, associate medical director of the Institute for Women's Health at the University of Miami, writing for the Times.
Only 7% of women say their health professional has ever asked them about domestic violence, notes the Times, and many of the doctors feel that asking is ineffective and a criminal justice issue — not a medical one. All the while, "Abused women are at increased risk of chronic pain, depression, anxiety and alcohol and substance abuse, and they can have problems taking their medication correctly and getting to appointments. In one recent study, women who said they had been abused within the past year were more likely to have partners who interfered with their medical care," according to the Times. The issue speaks to larger questions of health care, because we're dealing with a system where many battered women don't have health insurance to go to the doctor in the first place.
All the same, Felicia Cohn, director of medical ethics at UC Irvine laments that "the continuing inattention [to domestic violence] is both inexcusable and embarrassing. This is a public health pandemic with immense health care implications."