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Health practitioners’ role in eliminating family violence - a survivor’s story

15 Mar 2022

The first episode of Taking care for 2022 is a powerful and honest conversation about family violence and the role of health practitioners in helping survivors. 

Key points
  • In our first Taking care episode for 2022 we look at the response to family violence survivors in our healthcare system.
  • Emma* recalls her experiences of family violence and how her doctor helped her get the support she needed.
  • Professor Kelsey Hegarty and Medical Board of Australia Chair, Dr Anne Tonkin, talk about the role of practitioners and improvements needed to help more survivors.


Trigger warning: Some readers may find this article distressing. If you need support because of sexual assault, domestic or family violence you can call 1800 RESPECT for 24/7 phone and online services. If you, a child, or another person is in immediate danger, call 000.

Host Susan Biggar is joined by survivor Emma*, Professor Kelsey Hegarty; an academic GP who helps train practitioners in responding to family violence, and Dr Anne Tonkin; Chair of the Medical Board of Australia.  

Through Emma, we hear a powerful, and all-too-common, story of family violence. Emma was in a normal relationship and marriage. There were the usual tensions, until they weren’t ‘usual’. Emma shares some of the details of the family violence she experienced.

‘Towards the end I was actually living in the spare room with the baby lock on the door ... Come Monday morning, I couldn’t remember how my weekend was … I wondered if it was because he had hit me on the back of the head one too many times or too hard.’

Emma struggled to find the care she needed from health practitioners.

‘One sent me home with a sheet on how to talk more assertively, when I told him what I was experiencing and that he was being aggressive and that we were having these types of fights.’ 

‘I saw a GP years ago who documented my injuries for a police report after an incident that happened, they were quite horrific … she wrote it all down but then she just gave me a sheet to go and see a psychologist.’

‘I found a lady; she wanted me to challenge my belief system.’

‘Part of me felt like in that situation - is what I’m experiencing not bad enough? How bad does it have to get to be taken seriously? You see the stories on the news of women but they’re dead by then and it’s too late.’

She finally found a GP who listened. And ultimately helped her get the support she needed.

‘That was the first time, I felt believed in, or felt I could trust someone.’

The documentation made by her doctor and nurses helped police lay charges and her husband was eventually convicted.

‘They would just document what happened - and take photos if there were any injuries and they just listened and gave me a hug. They didn’t pressure me to leave or feel like I was going to be reported. They validated how I was feeling, and I trusted them.’

Health practitioners are most often who survivors of family violence talk to. Even more than police.

Professor Kelsey Hegarty, a GP, who is working to train GPs on how to better treat abuse victims, says too often health practitioners don’t ask despite some obvious signs.

‘Survivors do want a very non-judgemental response. To provide a safe and supportive environment for them to be able to discuss this … the greatest gift a health professional can give someone is to walk the journey with them.’

Professor Hegarty outlines the response practitioners should be giving (LIVES): 

  • Listen. 
  • Inquire about needs. 
  • Validate and believe someone’s experience. 
  • Enhance their safety and offer ongoing Support.

Dr Anne Tonkin notes that upskilling of health practitioners is needed to offer better support and care for these patients.

‘Just reporting is not enough. Being able to support the victim/survivor is a really important thing to be able to do.’

‘Doctors’ need to be skilled at doing that and understand how to do that sensitively and well.’

Emma agrees: ‘Believe your patient. Talk to them before making assumptions or having a knee jerk reaction. Trust that they know their situation better than anyone and just be there to support them on their journey.

Listen to the full episode

*Not her real name.

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Page reviewed 15/03/2022