Women who experience domestic violence and abuse (DVA) are more than twice as likely to seek emergency contraception as other women, according to a study by National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)-funded researchers at the University of Bristol and Queen Mary University of London, suggesting that requests for emergency contraception could be an important sign of abuse.
In the study, published in the British Journal of General Practice today, the researchers analysed medical records of over 200,000 women of reproductive age registered with a GP and found that those who had a record of DVA were 2.06 times more likely to have a consultation for emergency contraception compared to other women, rising to 2.8 times for women aged 25-39.
The researchers also found some evidence that abused women are more likely to seek emergency contraception repeatedly.
DVA is a major public health problem, with devastating consequences for the women who experience it and great financial cost to the NHS. It is known to have a significant impact on women’s reproductive health, including an increased risk of unintended pregnancy and abortion, as abusive and controlling partners coerce women to have unprotected sex or rape them.
Although emergency hormonal contraceptive, also known as the morning-after pill, is available from pharmacies, women can also get it from their GP. Up to a third of all emergency contraceptives are prescribed by GPs.
The researchers are calling for this new evidence to be included in existing DVA training programmes for GPs and sexual health practitioners, and for the training to be extended to community pharmacists, to help them identify and refer women who have experienced DVA on to specialist support services. Such programmes are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of a multi-sector response to DVA.
Joni Jackson, Research Associate from the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research (CLAHRC) West and co-lead author of the study, said:
“We found a strong positive association between exposure to domestic violence and abuse and requests for emergency contraception. Our findings are in line with evidence from studies in other countries suggesting that women experiencing DVA use more emergency contraception than other women. GPs, pharmacists and sexual health practitioners are at the frontline responding to these requests, with community pharmacists dispensing 50% of all emergency contraceptive pills. This presents an important opportunity to identify women experiencing DVA, signpost them to appropriate support services, and potentially save lives.”
Dr Natalia Lewis, from the Centre for Academic Primary Care at the University of Bristol and co-lead author, said:
“The negative impact of domestic violence and abuse on health results in higher use of healthcare services by abused women compared to the general population. This means that healthcare services are an important point of contact for DVA victims and survivors. We have already seen improvements in GPs’ ability to identify and refer women experiencing DVA through the success of the IRIS (Identification and Referral to Improve Safety) programme. IRIS has recently been adapted for sexual and reproductive health services. Our findings support the case for adapting the IRIS intervention to the community pharmacy setting, although more research is needed to explore if and how this could be done.”
The research was supported by NIHR CLAHRC West and CLAHRC North Thames.
Exposure to domestic violence and abuse and consultations for emergency contraception: nested case-control study in a UK primary care dataset. Joni Jackson, Natalia V Lewis, Gene S Feder, Penny Whiting, Timothy Jones, John Macleod, Maria Theresa Redaniel. British Journal of General Practice. 4 December 2018.
Use of emergency contraception among women with experience of domestic violence and abuse: a systematic review. Natalia V Lewis, Theresa HM Moore, Gene S Feder, John Macleod, Penny Whiting. BMC Family Practice. 26 September 2018.
Black elders dismiss the warning signs of dementia until the condition becomes too severe to ignore or a crisis strikes. They are also less likely to receive a diagnosis of their condition, resulting in delayed treatment and
less time to plan for the future.
Our latest BITE – a summary of published CLAHRC research provides an overview of our work with black elders, their families and carers to;
- identify barriers and facilitators to seeking help for dementia.
- based on what we found, work with dementia patients and their carers, volunteers from the public, clinicians and experts in the treatment and research of dementia to develop an intervention – a leaflet entitled Getting help for forgetfulness (below)
- trial the intervention with GP registered patients, who were asked to rate it and evaluate its effect on their intention to seek help from their doctor.
New CLAHRC research has highlighted a lack of guidance for health and social professionals who encounter children exposed to domestic violence.
Around one in five children in the UK have been exposed to domestic violence or abuse between their parents or caregivers. Children can be directly impacted – leading to emotional and behavioural problems and risks of physical injury and death when children are caught up in the violence between adults. Even when not directly involved, children’s exposure continues through witnessing and being aware of the violence – and through its health, social and financial consequences. Health and social care workers are often the first professionals to have contact with a child experiencing these situations.
In a collaboration with CLAHRC East of England and international colleagues from the McMaster and Western Universities in Canada we examined the evidence on child, parent and professional views on acceptable approaches to identifying and responding to children exposed to domestic violence.
The resulting research paper, published in BMJ Open, highlighted conflicting views of children and mothers on the one hand and professionals on the other when it came an ideal response. Children and mothers wanted professionals to talk to children directly and engage them in safety planning. Professionals preferred to engage with children via the parent and they often did not perceive children exposed to domestic violence as patients or clients in their own right.
Guidelines for health professionals who encounter women who have experienced domestic violence provide various questions and prompts they can use in discussions, and a set of principles to follow. There are no equivalent recommendations on how to identify and respond to children exposed to domestic violence and limited evidence on which to base future guidance. Our analysis also revealed that professionals were not happy with the existing safety guidelines for children and mothers exposed to domestic violence and wanted changes.
The research was funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada through funding to the VEGA (Violence, Evidence, Guidance and Action) project. The VEGA Project is part of the Canadian Government’s Public Health Response to Family Violence. This research will inform the development of public health guidance, protocols, curricula and tools for health and social service providers. The research was supported by the NIHR CLAHRC North Thames and NIHR CLAHRC East of England.
Resources supporting this new research include a blog in The Conversation by lead researcher Dr Natalia Lewis, and we have worked with CLAHRC East of England on a joint BITE – a summary of the research with key learning for busy professionals interested in this work.
Read the paper
Natalia V. Lewis, Gene S. Feder, Emma Howarth, Eszter Szilassy, Jill R. McTavish, Harriet L. MacMillan, Nadine Wathen.
BMJ Open 2018. Published in BMJ Open. April 2018. Doi:. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/8/4/e019761
Read a BITE sized summary
Around one in five children in the UK have been exposed to domestic violence or abuse between their parents or caregivers. When adults are involved in an abusive relationship, their children bear the consequences.
The effects of domestic violence on a child can range from emotional and behavioural problems to physical injury and death when children are caught up in the violence between adults.
Even when not directly involved, children’s exposure continues through witnessing and being aware of the violence – and through its health, social and financial consequences.
Health and social care workers are often the first professionals to have contact with a child experiencing these situations. This could be when the abused parent seeks help, or when children undergo health checks. It can happen during assessments for emotional or behavioural problems, or when social services, a child’s school or the police become involved.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that health professionals who see women with clinical signs of domestic violence should ask them about safety in their relationship and at home. They advise that responses to disclosure should follow what is known as the “LIVES” principles: Listen, Inquire about needs and concerns, Validate, Enhance safety, and provide Support.
But there are no equivalent recommendations for children, and there is no agreed approach regarding how best to identify and respond to children who are exposed to domestic violence. So far, there has also been only limited evidence on which to base future guidance.
Now researchers at universities in the UK (Bristol, Queen Mary and Cambridge) and Canada (McMaster and Western) have combined existing evidence on the best ways to identify and respond to children experiencing domestic violence. This synthesis, the first of its kind, integrates findings from 11 studies with 42 children, 220 parents, and 251 health care and social services professionals.
We found that study participants’ opinions were strikingly consistent, and matched the LIVES principles. Children, parents (mostly mothers) and professionals agreed that identification of the problem should happen in the context of a good patient-professional relationship, and in a safe and supportive environment.
Health care professionals should enquire about the child’s safety when they see clinical signs of domestic violence and abuse in children. The ideal initial response should include emotional support, discussion about domestic violence and advice on local specialist services.
We also discovered that a professional’s ability to identify and respond to children’s exposure to domestic violence was heavily influenced by constraints within the health and social service system. Lack of time, funding cuts and poor inter-agency collaboration all have an impact. Professionals needed more training and resources to be able to respond to these children and their families in an appropriate and safe way.
However, there was a difference of opinion when it came to engaging directly with children and managing their safety.
A direct approach?
Children and mothers wanted professionals to talk to children directly and engage them in safety planning. Professionals, on the other hand, preferred to engage with children via the parent – and did not perceive children exposed to domestic violence as patients or clients in their own right. Also, professionals were not happy with existing safety guidelines and practices for children and mothers exposed to domestic violence. These elements are certainly subjects for future research and training.
Given the scale of the problem, and the long-term emotional, behavioural and physical impacts on children, we hope that the results of this study can form the basis of new, internationally agreed guidelines.
Our research findings have already been used to inform point-of-care responses to adults and children in Canada’s VEGA (Violence, Evidence, Guidance, Action) Project. That program is already developing the “Recognising and Responding Safely to Family Violence” Handbook for health and social care professionals.
And we hope our evidence will inspire development of professional training and resources elsewhere – so that front line practitioners feel better equipped to appropriately and safely respond directly to the needs of children. Too many children’s lives and futures could depend upon it.
The findings of the joint CLAHRC West and CLAHRC North Thames study of the IRIS ADViSE pilot, which aimed to improve sexual health professionals’ response to women who have experienced domestic violence, are now available as a CLAHRC BITE.
Women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse (DVA) are three times more likely to have gynaecological and sexual health problems such as sexually transmitted infections, urinary tract infections and unintended pregnancy. Forty-seven per cent of women attending sexual health services will have experienced DVA at some point in their lives.
These services can be the first point of contact for women who have experienced DVA, so sexual health practitioners can have a key role in supporting women to access advocacy services. But most sexual health professionals haven’t had much training in identifying and responding to DVA, despite National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommendations.
The IRIS (Identification and Referral to Improve Safety) programme is an evidence-based training intervention for general practice staff to identify, respond and appropriately refer women who are affected by DVA. It is being implemented in general practice nationwide. IRIS ADViSE (Assessing for Domestic Violence in Sexual Health Environments) adapts the IRIS approach for sexual health staff.
This project looked at the feasibility and acceptability of the IRIS ADViSE pilot in sexual health clinics in Bristol and East London. The pilot aimed to encourage sexual health staff to ask patients whether they were experiencing DVA, and to make referrals to specialist services.
IRIS ADViSE included all staff training, patient information materials, an enquiry prompt in the electronic patient record and a simple referral pathway to DVA advocacy services.
In the east London clinic over seven weeks:
- 267 out of 2,568 women attending were asked about DVA
- 16 of those (6 per cent) said that they were affected by abuse
- Overall, eight of the women affected by abuse (50 per cent) were referred to specialist services
In the Bristol clinic over 12 weeks:
- 1,090 out of 1,775 women attending were asked about DVA
- 79 of those (7 per cent) said they were affected by abuse
- Overall, eight of the women affected by abuse (10 per cent), were referred to specialist services
During the three months before the pilot started, there were no referrals to DVA specialist services at either site.
We also interviewed sexual health clinic staff and DVA advocate workers in Bristol.
All the people we interviewed felt that asking about and referring women on to DVA services was appropriate and valuable in a sexual health setting. They responded favourably to the training and felt more confident about asking about DVA and managing disclosures.
Staff said that patients’ welcomed being asked about it, even if they’ve not ever been involved in an incident of domestic abuse themselves, that they appreciate that people are asking that question.
The staff reported that some disclosures were considered relatively simple and easy to handle, where patients can be easily referred to the partner DVA organisation or given information.
However, cases with an immediate risk of harm to the patient or their children were more complex in terms of managing the patient’s wishes and navigating existing safeguarding procedures. This added to staff’s already limited time and busy workloads.
Dr Jeremy Horwood (pictured below), lead researcher from the Centre for Academic Primary Care at University of Bristol and NIHR CLAHRC West, said:
“Sexual health staff are definitely supportive of asking their patients about domestic violence and abuse. But it’s crucial that they have support to do so, as these patients must be dealt with sensitively and referred on appropriately.
“At the policy and commissioning level, stronger recognition of the issues around domestic violence and abuse referrals, and resources to support them, are needed. Commissioners and local NHS trusts need to engage and commit to support domestic violence and abuse training, and to support programmes such as IRIS ADViSE.”
The study shows that it is feasible and acceptable to develop and implement the IRIS ADViSE training and referral package for sexual health clinics. At the policy and commissioning level, stronger recognition of the issues around DVA referrals, and more resources to support them, are needed. Commissioners and local NHS trusts need to engage and commit to financially support IRIS ADViSE to maximise its potential.
This study is part of CLAHRC North Thames’ wider collaboration with our colleagues at CLAHRC West. Researchers and staff work across London and Bristol sites each bringing their own expertise and experience to produce high-quality research. Our teams regularly meet to coordinate their work, and develop bids for funding for future work.
For this IRIS ADViSE project CLAHRC North Thames led on the work at the initial pilot site, focusing on the quantitative analysis; whereas CLAHRC West led on the qualitative analysis.
Links and downloads
BMJ talk medicine
Domestic violence affects a quarter of UK women: the role of sexual health practitioners
Listen to a podcast hosted by Editor in Chief of Sexually Transmitted Infections Jackie Cassell who is joined by Neha Pathak (Wellcome Trust Clinical PhD Fellow, Institute for Epidemiology & Healthcare, University College London) and Gene Feder (University of Bristol, Centre for Academic Primary Care) to discuss the various forms of the abuse and how healthcare practitioners can intervene.
Read our CLAHRC BITE summarising the research
Improving the response to domestic violence in sexual health clinics
Read the full research papers –
Sohal AH, Pathak N, Blake S, Apea, V. Berry, J. Bailey, J. Griffiths, C. Feder, G. (2018)
Improving the healthcare response to domestic violence and abuse in sexual health clinics: feasibility study of a training, support and referral intervention
SexuallyTransmitted Infections doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2016-052866
Horwood J, Morden A, Bailey JE, Pathak, N and Feder, G. (2018)
Assessing for domestic violence in sexual health environments: a qualitative study
Sexually Transmitted Infections. doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2017-053322
Pathak N, Sohal AH, Feder G.(2017)
How to enquire and respond to domestic violence and abuse in sexual health clinics.
Sexually Transmitted Infections. 2017 May;93(3):175-178. doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2015-052408. Epub 2016 Jul 25.