The Provider’s Role in Domestic Violence Awareness

The below was written by Heidi Fantasia PhD, RN, WHNP-BC. Dr. Fantasia is an Associate Professor at the Solomont School of Nursing, University of Massachusetts – Lowell, and a member of the NPWH Board of Directors

Every October, we recognize Domestic Violence Awareness. Since 1981, this month has been used to promote awareness, support victims, and advocate for a world with less physical, sexual, and emotional violence. The Violence Against Women Act was passed in 1994 and there has been much progress toward providing services for victims of violence and also holding perpetrators responsible for their actions.

What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is a broad term that can include many different types of actions. Abusive behavior is used as a way to control a partner, and control is a central component of the relationship. These behaviors can include things such as control of finances, limiting outside relationships, isolation from family and friends, verbal threats or intimidation, stalking, coerced sexual encounters, control over reproduction, and physical violence. Although violence can occur in any relationship and can be committed by both men and women, the most common scenario is a male perpetrating violence toward a female partner.

How common is domestic violence?

It is estimated that 1 in 4 women will experience some type of intimate partner violence during their lifetime and this number may even be higher due to underreporting. Although all women could potentially be exposed to violence in a relationship, younger women between the ages of 18 and 24 are at greatest risk. Relationship violence, combined with a gun in the home, increases the risk of homicide by 500%. Intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent crimes.

Why do women stay in abusive relationships?

Leaving an abusive relationship can be extremely dangerous for the woman. They often face blame for staying and disbelief that violence occurs when they don’t end the relationship. When the abuser senses that he or she is losing control over their partner, the violence can escalate and the risk for lethality increases. If there are dependent children, then leaving becomes even more complex because not only does the woman need to consider her own safety but the also the safety of her children. The process of leaving can be lengthy, and often women have experienced economic control and isolation as part of the abuse. Therefore, they may lack the financial resources and social capital necessary to support themselves and their children independently and safely.

What can health care providers do?

Screen for Intimate Partner Violence

One of the most important things health care providers can do is screen women for intimate partner violence when they present for care. Due to fear, stigma, concern about being believed, and shame, women may be reluctant to initiate a conversation with their provider. Asking women directly if they have experienced violence increases disclosure rates and allows for identification of women who need services and support. Direct questions such as “Have you ever experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or threats from a partner?”, “Are you currently afraid of someone?” and “Do you feel safe in your relationship and at home?” are examples of questions that are clear and concise. Letting women know that these questions are asked of everyone prevents women from feeling singled out or targeted due to any sociodemographic factor. These questions also convey that the topic is important and allows for dialogue about safety and physical and emotional health.

Discuss Healthy Relationships

Another important role for health care providers is to discuss healthy relationships, especially with adolescent women who might be starting to navigate dating and romantic partnerships. Inquiring about the nature of the relationship with open-ended questions such as “Tell me about your partner” or “Are you happy in your relationship?” provides an opportunity to gain insight into behaviors that might indicate abuse or the potential for abuse. Adolescent women may perceive constant messages, wanting to know where they are and who they are with, and displays of jealousy as care and concern and not controlling behavior.

Direct Patients to Support Services

All health care providers should be prepared to offer support and assistance to women who disclose violence. It’s important to have a current list of support services in the geographical area, including law enforcement contacts, shelters, safe houses, counseling, and legal aid (especially pro bono). Women may want to end a relationship but need time to arrange housing, finances, transportation and other necessary items. Performing a lethality assessment and helping women to craft a safety plan is essential, especially if there are guns or other weapons in the home.


Although awareness of intimate partner and domestic violence has increased steadily, there is still much more progress to be made. Continued efforts to recognize relationship violence as a prevalent public health issue will help decrease victim blaming and normalize conversations about best strategies for prevention.

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