Emergency Room Policy on Domestic Abuse

I got hurt because my boyfriend thought I was cheating on him. Does the hospital have to know how someone gets hurt or will they treat and release patients with no questions asked?

Currently, hospitals are not bound by any laws that require them to report cases of domestic violence to the authorities, unless there is a gun or a knife wound. There has been legislation proposed to requiring doctors to report domestic violence. It was largely opposed by emergency room physicians. The reality would have been to discourage many women from seeking medical care and getting the referrals to social services that should be part of such a visit. Adequate protection resources for the victim are lacking in many communities. And reporting can precipitate more violence by offending partner, immediately afterwards. This is a dangerous combination.

While disclosure isn't required, it is in a woman's best interests to provide her healthcare providers with the most accurate information she can in order to receive appropriate treatment. You will have to give some explanation of how the injuries occurred. What's called "the mechanism of injury" -- how you fell or got hit is important in deciding on what to x-ray and how to treat injuries. Most patients who try to substitute a story will leave out important aspects of the injury.

Doctors, especially emergency room doctors, are knowledgable about the ways bruises and fractures associated with beatings are different than those caused by accidents. In many cases, the doctor will suspect that you have been beaten anyway and will ask you.

Emergency departments are well-versed in domestic violence. They will encourage you to report it to the police, but they won't push. They know better than anyone about the real-life pitfalls, dangers, and limitations of reporting domestic violence and leaving the abuser. If you tell them everything, they will give you referrals to resources to help you cope with the situation in ways that you are willing to do today. They are more likely to photograph injuries for use in any future legal proceeding, should you choose to pursue that. And the abuse will be documented. Should it ever occur again, documenting a pattern of abuse can be crucial to getting the legal and police intervention that you may need.

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