by Heather, a Hotline Advocate
If your partner is abusive, chances are you probably don’t get a lot of alone time. One common and effective tactic of emotional abuse is isolation. If your partner has isolated you from your family, friends and community, your doctor may be one of the only people you have the chance to speak with alone. If this is the case, consider making the most of your visits with your healthcare providers, whose very job it is to take care of your physical and mental health, by being honest with them about any abuse you are experiencing.
Most doctors’ offices will follow their patient’s lead as to whether it’s okay for a partner to be present during the consultation, exam or check out. However, we know that usually it’s not as simple as just asking your partner to stay in the waiting room, or saying no when the medical assistant asks if you want your partner to come back with you. Asserting your right to privacy during your appointment in front of your partner could make you less safe after you leave the appointment, so always trust your instincts and use your best judgement about what will keep you safest overall.
One option to consider is finding a time to reach out to your provider before your next visit (or if you’re going to a new doctor, ideally before your first visit) and letting them know you’d strongly prefer it if they could tell your partner they have to speak with you alone. Many doctors are starting to screen for intimate partner violence in their initial intake with patients, whether in person, or through the medical history forms they use, so if you get a moment alone with your doctor, it’s best to tell them the truth about what you’re dealing with. Your doctor may be able to help you make a safety plan, provide you with information on local resources, and document what you’re going through. You might even ask your doctor if you can use the privacy of the exam room to call someone your abuser might not otherwise let you, such as a trusted friend, family member, the police, or even The Hotline.
Whether you verbally tell your provider or their staff that you’re dealing with abuse, or you secretly slip them a note, it’s a good idea to first familiarize yourself with what medical providers in your state are required to report to law enforcement. If you are concerned that what you tell them could lead to police involvement that you don’t want or aren’t ready for, you can always ask for help by speaking in hypotheticals. “What would you say to someone whose partner always makes them feel bad by talking down to them?” or “What kind of help is there if I know someone who is being hurt by their partner?”
One way you can protect your health information, if you have been able to talk with your doctor or their staff privately, is to password-protect your chart/medical information, so no matter who calls them, nothing about your medical history or appointments will be discussed over the phone unless the person calling can provide the correct password. The word you choose should be something ordinary and easy for you to remember, but not something your partner would guess on their first try. Under HIPPA, you have the right to keep your medical information private. If you’re ever concerned your doctor’s office may have violated any of your rights, you can file a formal complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, your state’s medical licensing board, or the Better Business Bureau.
For your overall health and well-being, we strongly encourage you communicate certain things to your doctor, like if your partner has strangled or attempted to choke you, caused you to have a concussion or traumatic brain injury, threatened you with a weapon, or if you’re experiencing any adverse mental health symptoms, such as PTSD, as a result of the abuse, which are unfortunately very common. If you’re interested in finding a counselor or support group specifically for survivors of intimate partner abuse, our advocates are available 24/7/365 by phone and chat to help you locate local resources, and most are usually free.
It’s also important to tell your doctor if you are pregnant, or if you’re concerned about getting pregnant and don’t want to be. We know that abusers may control reproductive choices in their relationship, so while condoms can prevent most sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the safest and most reliable birth control method for you may be one that your abuser doesn’t know you’re using. You can talk to your health care provider about different forms of birth control that may be harder for your partner to tamper with. They may also be able to provide you with the morning-after pill or emergency contraception you could keep somewhere secret, like at work, in case you’ve been forced to have unprotected sex. If you don’t feel comfortable having conversations about your sexual health with your current doctor (it may be time to find a new one, and) you can always go to your local Planned Parenthood.
If you have injuries to your head, face, neck or teeth as a result of violence from your partner, or you have scars or need other reconstructive surgeries due to injuries you received, you may be able to get connected to a doctor through the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Cosmetic and Reconstructive Support Program. Another free program that assists survivors in need of dental work due to domestic violence is the 1-800-Dentist Give Back a Smile Program. You can also find a new general health practitioner through the Health Resources and Services Administration’s FindAHealthCenter.gov website. No matter what your partner tells you, remember that you always have a right to seek medical care if you are injured, in pain, or ill, and if you’re concerned for your life, you always have the right to call 911.
We know that telling someone out loud that your partner has been hurting you, whether emotionally, physically or sexually can be really challenging, so it’s important to practice self-care before, during and after your appointment. Self-care before your appointment could look like writing down (if it’s safe for you) what you want to tell your doctor, so you don’t have to think about it when you get there. During your appointment self-care could include practicing grounding techniques like taking deep breaths, or focusing on the physical sensations of your surroundings. After your visit, it’s important to make some time to recharge, if you have the space to, and do something you enjoy, whether it’s grabbing coffee with a friend, taking a nap, journaling, or reading a favorite book. You deserve to be safe and happy in a healthy relationship based on trust, honesty, mutual respect and equality. Telling your doctor if that’s not the case could be your first step towards getting the safety you so deserve.
If you need to talk any of this through before you talk to your doctor, feel free to reach out to one of our advocates. We’re here 24/7/365 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or by online chat at www.thehotline.org.