I have spent a great deal in the past months seeing a variety of doctors for various reasons. At every visit, every time, the patient care-tech brings me back to the visiting room to wait for the doctor. It is their responsibility to weigh, check blood pressure and ask a few questions. One of those questions is the medical community’s answer to being trauma informed. It misses by a huge mark.
Being trauma informed simply means being sensitive to a patient’s history or the possibility of the patient being in a dangerous living situation. We are talking domestic violence, and all forms of abuse: mental, physical and sexual at any age. Being a trauma informed means everyone on your team from the receptionist to the doctor is sensitive to how they treat a patient. Some may say this is over the top but the concept is very important to the true wellness of all patients.
For example, the patient who keeps coming back with bruises or injuries from falls. Very suspicious if the patient is only forty. Maybe not so for someone who is eighty. But in the case of the eighty year old, she or he may have a care giver who has been frustrated in having to provide care and pushes them to make them move faster, or hits them when they spill things. And the patient is not going to do anything about it because the next step is being forced into a nursing home. They are living in an abusive home and are trapped. They certainly are not going to be forth coming about it.
Patients who have experienced domestic violence of any form will react differently to the way someone approaches their safety bubble. What I mean by this is that everyone has a comfort zone for how close people can get and how comfortable they are being touched. Some people are huggers and touchers and love to get close to anyone, including a stranger. People who have been abused have much larger safety zones and very often do not want to be touched. This not wanting to be touched can range from the patient being able to tolerate it by disassociation or the patient who has a panic attack at the mere thought of having to be touched, which often leads them to not go to the doctor when they really need to.
It an attempt to becoming trauma informed, our local medical center has all providers asking about the safety of their patients? It is a useless attempt to meet a standard. First of all, it is not the doctor who asks this question. It is the care-tech, the gum chewing little twenty-something who is trying to beat a record of some kind by seeing how fast she can get patients in the rooms ready for the doctor. They change regularly and even so, I doubt highly any patient who is in a domestic violence situation is going to open up to that individual as if they are going to be able to do anything. AND… it is none of their business. The lack of sensitivity to the situation of an actual abuse situation is very typical. Unless there has been some form of specific training done with people who are asking that question, simply asking the question almost makes it worse. What are they going to do if a patient says, “no I am not safe. My husband routinely comes home drunk and beats the shit out of me and then rapes me.” The response to that can make or break the patient. The care-tech’s only course of action would be to type ABUSED into the chart. That works!
I would love to know how asking this question, “do you feel safe in your living environment” is the proper opening for a patient to disclose something so humiliating and degrading as being abused. And how many providers are even trained to handle the situation past the physical? Do they know who in the community is providing help for domestic violence? But the bottom line, most patients will not jeopardize themselves by spilling the beans about their crappy home life in a brief visit to a doctor, especially if there is not a relationship built over time with that doctor.
But being trauma informed goes beyond asking that inane question. It is things like how the patient is treated by everyone; from the rushed handling of the care-tech to the actual doctor. Patients who are victims of abuse will react from the way they are placed in a room and then left abruptly to wait for an extended period for the doctor. Letting the patients know if the doctor is running late, or checking in on the patient to see if they are ok would go much further to calm a nervous person. Having the doctor explain what and why they are going to do something BEFORE doing it will help also. Even the simple act of having them listen to the heart can be traumatic. Some doctors will do it over clothes, some doctors reach right in without warning for skin contact. Sometimes there may be a need to hold the patients head while examining their throat for example. This simple act can terrify someone who has had their head restrained in an abusive act such as forced oral sex. Lying down on an examining table makes anyone vulnerable, but for an abused patient, it is excruciating.
For some patients, the act of disrobing will send them back to a place of past abuse. These patients need a sense of safety which throwing them into a sterile, brightly lit room and demanding they disrobe behind a flimsy curtain does not provide. Then they have to sit in anticipation of being probed on a ridiculous scary examining table sitting in the middle of the room as if they were a piece of meat shivering in a paper gown. Would it be so absolutely terrible to provide a soft blanket to comfort and to also help with limiting the exposure while being examined? Something that simple is being trauma informed.
The patient is brought back to the exam room and sat down after being weighed. For some, being weighed is very traumatic. I know that doctors need the vitals but unless you are suspicious of your patients and do not trust them, can you not simply ask them what they weigh? Or make it part of the exam in private and not in a hallway where everyone is walking by. The scale calculates and the care-tech yells out the reading like everyone needs to know….and you still have your boots on. I skip it and refuse. Unless I am there for weight related issues, I know what I weigh and I will tell the doctor if they ask.
Health care workers are highly trained. But in the area of trauma informed, there is much to learn. This study goes hand in hand with a comprehension of the ACE study, which identified the link of abuse to chronic illnesses. I have asked all the doctors who I see if they are aware of the ACE study, and none of them are. I am going to leave a couple of articles for them to read. (see below) We need to work on this information being disseminated and so if you found this helpful, read and print these out and give them to your doctors.
Ace study: http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797%2898%2900017-8/fulltext
PDF of journal article: http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(98)00017-8/pdf