NHS services in Devon are at the forefront of expert work to identify and care for people affected by domestic abuse and sexual violence, as case numbers rise during COVID-19 pandemic.
The aim is to not only help local GPs identify and support victims but also
perpetrators of abuse so that people can be supported to change.
The problem is often a hidden one but the cost to the NHS is an estimated £2.3
billion a year nationwide.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic abuse charities and other organisations are reporting an increase in cases:
• General online domestic abuse searches have increased more than threefold
• Support lines and web chat activity has increased by more than half
• A substantial rise in self-referrals to national charity ChildLine
• An increase of up to 50% in high risk referrals
Earlier this year, NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) appointed its first Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Lead, Collette Eaton-Harris, who is now working to further enhance improvements across the county, so that Devon remains at the forefront of best practice.
And between 25 November and 10 December, Devon CCG is supporting Public Heath England South West’s campaign to mark the international 16 days of action movement by reminding employers across the South West of their duty of care to employees to provide a safe and effective work environment.
Twenty-nine GP practices in the Devon and Torbay areas are part of a successful programme called IRIS (Identification and Referral to Improve Safety) that offers GP teams tailored training and access to a named specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence advocate.
“We know that domestic abuse and sexual violence are preventable,” said Collette.
“Those affected are known to their GPs and other health professionals long before they reach police or other services.
“This is because they view their GP practice as a trusted, reliable and safe place. This presents us with a real opportunity to help people sooner.”
A survey in Torbay in 2016 showed that patients consider GPs to be the person they most wanted to talk to about their experience of domestic abuse and sexual violence. GPs were rated as second only to a friend in this survey.
Women experiencing domestic abuse are known to see their GP more frequently than women who are not.
Those who have suffered abuse may present with symptoms such as anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, gynaecological or digestive disorders – sometimes years after the abuse took place, including in their childhoods.
GPs are being specially trained to ask questions that can help identify victims and refer them to a named specialist – this has been shown to reduce GP appointments as their symptoms were addressed and the right help provided.
Dr Harriet Dickson, a GP at St Leonard’s Practice in Exeter, one of the programme leaders, said: “This is an excellent service and invaluable training. I have had several patients who have been really grateful for the service and it has empowered them and changed their lives.
“One patient at another IRIS site in the county was over 80 years old when she was referred and the abuse took place when she was a child, meaning she had endured years of that trauma impacting on her health.”
Patients have fed back about their experience of the IRIS project including:
• “I have seen that there were agencies that could support people with abuse but I would never have called or see anyone if it wasn’t for my GP referring me to see someone in my surgery, what a difference this has made to my life and future.”
• “Thank you for helping me share my story. Thank you for helping me log it
with the police and to know that I wasn’t the only victim. Thank you, I have ‘me’ back again.”
• “Thank you for listening and helping me realise that I could move away and be safer, this was the best thing I did, I feel safe and my children are happier.
• “So I went to my GP and she said ‘I’ll refer you to the IRIS project’ and it was quite quick that I was contacted and able to come down (for an appointment). It’s really helping me and I wouldn’t have got anywhere if I hadn’t come down. I was getting to the end and thinking there’s nobody to help me.”
Domestic abuse includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse in couple
relationships or between family members. Domestic abuse can be an issue regardless of age or sexuality. Children and young people are often the hidden victims.
Hospitals in Exeter and Barnstaple are also taking part in delivering key interventions as recommended by Pathfinder, a national project which aims to transform healthcare’s response to domestic abuse by ensuring a coordinated and consistent approach across the health system including acute, mental health and primary careservices.
The more rural profile of Devon, with an older population, can mean that people affected by domestic abuse are more isolated, with less opportunity to be seen by friends, family or local care services. This has been accentuated for some by the current pandemic.
Collette said: “Problems escalate during lockdown and many people feel unsure
about contacting services at this time.Support is available though and we urge people not to hesitate, but to talk to someone they trust such as a healthcare professional or contact our local helplines.”
If you’ve been affected by domestic abuse or sexual violence you can call Victim Support on 0808 031 8178. You can also access Live Chat; a web-based support service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The service is anonymous, confidential and free to use. It can be accessed online the Victim Care website. https://www.victimcaredevonandcornwall.org.uk/ If you are in immediate danger, dial 999.
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