The Medical Defence Union (MDU) has reminded doctors to be on the lookout for signs of domestic abuse when treating patients. 

The advice from the UK's largest indemnifier of doctors comes as published figures have revealed that reports of domestic violence increased by 11% last year, while prosecutions were down by 14% during the same period. 

Speaking following the publication of the figures, Dr Richenda Tisdale, medico-legal adviser at the MDU, said: "Doctors and other healthcare professionals have a duty to be alert to the symptoms of domestic abuse and are often in a position to spot these signs and help so it is vital that they know what to look out for and what to do if they do suspect it is taking place.

“It is a sensitive subject and even if they do pick up on the signs, patients may well be reluctant to confirm that the doctor's suspicions are correct.

"It is also important that doctors consider the overall picture of the family life of the patient. Although each case is different, it is well recognised that domestic abuse and child abuse can co-exist and so this is also something that doctors should look out for where they suspect a patient is in a situation involving domestic abuse”.

In its guidance on protecting children and young people, the General Medical Council makes clear that doctors must take action where there is concern that a young person is risk.

Dr Tisdale said: "Although doctors should, in general, seek consent before disclosing information, if this is not possible and on balance the benefits to the child or young person outweigh the benefits of keeping the information confidential, doctors have a duty to disclose the information." 

The MDU advises doctors: 

  • Be alert to the possibility of domestic abuse in any patient
  • Be aware of and follow local and national guidance on the identification and management of patients presenting with signs of possible domestic abuse
  • In general practice, ensure that there is a clear protocol in place for dealing with domestic abuse
  • Liaise with local services who offer support for victims of domestic abuse
  • Consider the family as a whole if abuse is, or may be, present in the household
  • Be mindful of your duty of confidentiality and seek consent for disclosure unless there is a compelling reason not to do so
  • Seek advice if considering disclosure without or contrary to a patient's consent.