Nurses need more understanding of domestic abuse, says RCN

RCN says nurses and midwives can help make a difference to those at risk from domestic abuse.

Nurse and midwives have a significant role to play in helping people at risk from domestic abuse, the RCN said.

Nurses and midwives are key to supporting victims, says Carmel Bagness. Picture: David Gee

The college has stated it wants to help nurses better understand their responsibilities in relation to domestic abuse, whether it is in the form of coercion, manipulation, sexual assault, rape and even homicide. 

It said it intends to work with educators to ensure domestic abuse is prominent in pre and post-registration nursing education and has reiterated a commitment to keep the issue on the UK’s policy agenda.

Two million adults were affected by domestic abuse in the year to March 2016, while it is estimated one in four women, one in five children and one in six men experience it.

Although it accounts for 16% of violent crime, domestic abuse is the least likely form of violence to be reported to police.

A complex issue

RCN professional lead for midwifery and women’s health Carmel Bagness said domestic abuse was a complex issue, but emphasised nurses were key to engaging with people affected.

Ms Bagness said: 'From health visitors to A&E nurses, all nursing staff need to be prepared to identify and help victims of domestic abuse whether they are male or female, adult or child.’

She said the college’s public statement on the issue affirms its long-held commitment to help nursing and midwifery staff support victims of domestic abuse, and to lobby for improved services.

A Nursing Standard investigation in 2016 revealed that more than a quarter of nursing staff regularly encounter patients who have experienced domestic abuse, but lack of training was an issue.

Lack of training

Around a third of the 1,455 nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants and nursing students who responded to our survey said they would not know how to refer on a domestic abuse survivor for support. Around two thirds (61.7%) had either never been trained, or had no recent training in the area.

In addition, nurses are three times more likely than the general population to have experienced domestic abuse themselves.

A Cavell Nurses’ Trust survey of more than 2,200 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants revealed 14% had experienced domestic abuse in a one-year period.

In May the RCN published a pocket-guide to help nurses identify potential victims of domestic abuse, containing conversation-starters on the subject, definitions and advice on taking action.

Signs of possible domestic abuse

  • Symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders
  • Unexplained gynaecological symptoms, including pelvic pain and sexual dysfunction
  • Adverse reproductive outcomes, including multiple unintended pregnancies or terminations
  • Repeated health consultations with no clear diagnosis. Person might describe themselves as ‘accident prone’, ‘silly’, or provide a vague history of injuries
  • Traumatic injury, for example burns, bites, cuts or fractures, particularly if repeated and with vague or implausible explanations


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