San Antonio medical students learn to identify patients experiencing domestic violence

Major symptoms can be related to trauma, but doctors need to be trained to see the connection

Health care workers are on the frontline when it comes to recognizing domestic violence victims, but it’s not just bruises and scars they’re treating.

SAN ANTONIO – Health care workers are on the frontline when it comes to recognizing domestic violence victims, but it’s not just bruises and scars they’re looking for in patients.

The doctors of tomorrow are learning far more than diagnosing rashes or viruses. They’re learning empathy.

“Things like, ‘You can talk to me. This is a safe space. I’m here to help if you ever need me,’” explained Dr. Jason Morrow with UT Health San Antonio.

Morrow is an associate professor of medicine at UT Health San Antonio and assistant director for ethics at the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics.

He brings the topic of domestic violence into the classes he teaches at the Long School of Medicine.

“We need to make it a universal practice in the clinic that patients have some time with their provider alone,” Morrow said.

Abusers often try to accompany victims into doctors’ offices, so they cannot be fully honest.

“And we encourage students to have the confidence to tell family members, ‘We need you to just wait outside for a few moments.’ Obviously, that can be a problem when there’s a controlling relationship. So we don’t put students in a space of discomfort,” Morrow said. “If they’re worried about something, if their radar’s going off, they just need to take it up the chain of command.”

Morrow teaches students how to advocate for their patients and dig deeper into trauma symptoms that Morrow calls “sneaky.”

“It can be asthma or diabetes or COPD that’s not controlled because a woman doesn’t have access to her own medications,” he said. “Because of the incredible amount of stress in her life, her cortisol levels are high. That brings hypertension. That raises blood sugar levels.”

Over time, that can lead to vascular diseases like heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure.

It’s not all textbook learning for the students. Professors bring in experts from Family Violence Prevention Services and survivors who tell their own stories.

“We had a survivor talk to our class last Friday. It was very impactful. It is profound, honestly. And I think that just hearing that can engender a degree of empathy,” said second-year medical student Benjamin Akande.

His fellow student, Scout Openshaiw, added that she’s learning empathy starts with connecting with patients on their level.

“Making eye contact instead of just taking notes. Making sure that a patient knows that you’re listening to them and that you’re here for them,” Openshaw said.

Morrow has taught them it’s not necessary to swoop in and save the patient within the same appointment. He explained that laying a foundation of trust means a victim will feel safe to open up and ask for help when they are ready.

“I’ve realized domestic violence can happen to anyone, and there are a lot more people affected than we realize,” Openshaw said.

The students know not every medical school offers this type of education and are proud to be equipping themselves with skills that could directly impact Bexar County’s devastating domestic violence problem.

“We’re in a crisis. This is a public health cause, and every doctor should be engaged,” Morrow said.

He hopes medical schools worldwide will begin incorporating domestic violence education into their curriculums.

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, there is a long list of resources at the top on KSAT’s Domestic Violence page.

If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.

You can also call the Family Violence Prevention Services crisis line at (210) 733-8810. FVPS operates the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter.


About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.