Published: 04 April 2016
Author: Danae Lekakis

Doctors, nurses and lawyers must work together to stem violence against women

One of the more important, but overlooked, recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence urges a much closer collaboration between doctors and other health professionals, who are often at the front line of violence against women, with lawyers, who have the expertise necessary to help women protect themselves legally.

The importance of violence as a factor in women’s health has been underscored by two local studies.

A study of 399 pregnant women at the Royal Women’s Hospital found that 80 women or 20% of the study suffered violence during their pregnancy. (Walsh, D & Weeks, W, What a smile can hide, Royal Women’s Hospital, 2004)

Another study conducted by VicHealth found that violent partners rated as higher risk factor to women’s health than high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. (VicHealth, The health costs of violence: measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence: a summary of findings, DHS 2004 (reprinted 2010))

Health service professionals are often the first port of call for women who have been the victim or have been abused by their partner. The integration of legal support services with health services is therefore a common sense and effective way to respond to the issue of family violence. It also improves access to justice for victims.

Acting on the Warning Signs – a practical response to family violence

This is an issue close to our hearts as a firm.

We’ve been fortunate enough to partner with the Inner Melbourne Community Legal Service in an innovative program being undertaken within the Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne.

Called the ‘Acting on the Warning Signs’ program, it sees our lawyers working as part of what is effectively a triage team at the Women’s, so that any patient presenting with the symptoms of domestic violence have access to a broad range of services – health, legal and welfare.

This program is already being expanded from the Royal Women’s Hospital into the Royal Children’s Hospital  and the Royal Melbourne Hospital and illustrates the vital need for these programs to be easily accessible to all victims of violence.

The Commission’s report found that the ‘Acting on the Warning Signs’ program improved the ability of health care professionals to respond more effectively to family violence. The study also showed that the program was successful in assisting health care professionals understand how to refer patients to appropriate services, and their role in the system more broadly.

However despite the existence of programs such as this, the report noted there is currently 'a lack of overall cohesion and consistency in the way health professionals respond to family violence.'

We support the implementation of recommendations that allow for an integrated and coordinated approach to ensuring the various parts of the family violence system to work together to respond to family violence. As the report notes, 'getting help should not depend on the particular entry point chosen by the victim'. 

The report also recommended that integration of health care and legal services should be underpinned by clear political and professional leadership. We applaud the commitment State and Federal Governments have recently shown towards family violence, with the Andrews Government announcing Wednesday that it would fund all 227 recommendations and the Federal Government's announcement in September that it would fund health and legal service integration initiatives.

These signs of bipartisan leadership on the issue indicate that important steps are being made in the right direction to combat family violence.

Useful links

Acting on the Warning Signs

Inner Melbourne Legal Community 

Royal Commission into Family Violence report online

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