Can Doctors Screen Men for Domestic Violence?

A new study finds one in five men report having committed an act of intimate-partner violence and identifies where the medical community can intervene.

Male violence against women is all too commonplace. Just recently, the CDC reported such in its National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey of more than 12,000 people. In it, the CDC found:

43.9 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.

19 percent of women reported having been raped in their lifetime.

And in many of those instances, the perpetrators were intimately involved with the women. Today, a report out of the University of Michigan finds even more evidence for the all-too-common occurrence of abuse: One in five men in a nationally representative sample report being perpetrators of intimate-partner violence. That is, one in five men are willing to admit on a survey they have acted abusively toward a partner.

But the Michigan study, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, goes further than just reporting the top numbers. The authors of the report dissect male domestic violence as if it were a disease. In this view, surprising comparisons arise: Male violence against partners is more common than diabetes.

So if domestic violence is a disease, can doctors identify it in the patient? The Michigan study sought to correlate domestic violence with other health outcomes. Compared to the males who didn't commit such acts, those who reported violence against a partner were more likely to report symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and insomnia.

It would be wrong to take these findings and declare that men with irritable bowels are more likely to commit domestic-violence crimes. The paper concludes that these may be caused by either substance abuse or a history of childhood violence (which two out of three perpetrators reported experiencing). So it's not that irritable bowels cause domestic violence. It's that the two may be related to the same psychological or biological cause. These are all just clues doctors may use in discovering who may be most likely to cause harm.

Perhaps most significant for future research, the study found that 66 percent of males who have reported violence against a partner go for routine doctor's visits. That means the medical community could play a huge role in screening for potential abusers and addressing the root cause. "This finding suggests male [intimate-partner violence] perpetrators seek routine medical services, giving primary-care providers the opportunity to identify men's aggressive behavior and potentially intervene," the paper concludes.