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Guidelines for Managing Domestic Abuse When Male and Female Partners Are Patients of the Same Physician

Lorraine E. Ferris, PhD; Peter G. Norton, PhD, MD; Earl V. Dunn, MD; Elaine H. Gort, MSc; Naushaba Degani, MHSc
JAMA. 1997;278(10):851-857. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03550100077043.
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Objective.  —To provide clinical guidelines for primary care physicians who are dealing with domestic abuse and who have both the abused woman and her partner as patients.

Participants.  —A 15-member expert panel with members having experience in family practice, gynecology, emergency medicine, medical ethics, nursing, psychology, law, and social work; an 11-member consulting group with members representing medicine, consumers, police, psychology, social work, and nursing; and participants from focus groups including 48 previously abused women and 10 previously abusive men. Members of the expert panel and the consulting group were recruited by the research team. Focus group members were recruited through the agencies from which they were receiving services.

Evidence.  —Available research information, and opinions of the expert panel, the consulting group, and the focus group participants.

Consensus Process.  —Scoring of 144 clinical scenarios was performed by the expert panel using a modified Delphi technique involving 4 iterations. Scenarios were rated in terms of best practice for primary care physicians dealing with suspected and confirmed cases of physical abuse. Consulting group members and focus group participants then commented on the panel's results. Final guidelines were approved by the panel and the consulting group, with comments reserved in the guidelines for information from focus group participants.

Conclusions.  —It is not a conflict of interest for the physician to deal with abuse of the female partner when both partners are patients. Both patients have a right to autonomy, confidentiality, honesty, and quality care. Patients should be dealt with independently, thereby facilitating assessment of the magnitude and severity of the victim's injuries. Physicians should not discuss the possibility of domestic abuse with the male partner without the prior consent of the abused female partner. Joint counseling is generally inadvisable and should be attempted only when the violence has ended, provided both partners give independent consent and the physician has adequate training and skills to deal with the situation without escalating the violence. If the physician feels unable to deal effectively with either patient because of the dual relationship, referral to another qualified physician is preferred.


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The American Medical Association is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education to provide continuing medical education for physicians. The AMA designates this journal-based CME activity for a maximum of 1 AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM per course. Physicians should claim only the credit commensurate with the extent of their participation in the activity. Physicians who complete the CME course and score at least 80% correct on the quiz are eligible for AMA PRA Category 1 CreditTM.
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