Physician investigates importance of dentists in recognising domestic violence
The statistics are alarming: according to the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) there were more than 143,000 victims of domestic violence last year. Over the past five years, the number of victims has risen by a total of 3.4 percent. However, experts estimate the figure of unreported cases to be much higher. In other words, there is no question that domestic violence is a massive social problem. However, one aspect which has attracted very little attention in public so far is how important the role of dentists is in recognising victims. For Dr. Jana Bregulla, 27, a physician and researcher from the University of Münster, this is not very surprising. In her dissertation, she found that, despite the highly charged nature of the topic, scientific studies examining the connection between dental care and domestic violence are rare – actually non-existent in German-speaking countries. “What dentists lack,” says Bregulla, “is the basic knowledge on recognising the signs of domestic violence – how to correctly document such cases, how to communicate with victims, and how to provide them with professional help.”
A qualitative assessment, carried out for the first time, of the few studies which exist shows that some countries are already implementing measures to recognise and treat victims of domestic violence. “Empirical studies at a School of Dentistry in the US point for example to the fact that specific lecture modules increase students’ knowledge of health-related traumatic events, as well as improving their confidence in treating victims,” says Bregulla, who works in the Polyclinic for Prosthetic Dentistry and Biomaterials at Münster University Hospital. “I think Germany has a lot of catching-up to do, so some of the studies could serve as examples of best practice .”
The crux of the matter, she says, is the communication between doctor and patient. Dentists often have wrong ideas about the victims of violence, she adds, with most of them not having had any formal training as regards domestic violence. This often leads to a certain reluctance to ask patients about their injuries. “In order to dispel these inhibitions,” Bregulla comments, “it would make sense to regularly integrate role plays and training relating to communication and simulation into medical studies. The University of Münster’s teaching hospital offers optimum teaching and learning conditions for this purpose.”
Injuries to the face can point to domestic violence. Typical injuries, for example, are chipped teeth, injuries to the upper lip, or fractures of the jaw. Dentists are often the first – and sometimes the only ones – whom victims see. Although dentists are bound by medical confidentiality if they suspect violence has been carried out, there are still possibilities for them to take action. Dentists’ and doctors’ associations in the North Rhine and Westphalia-Lippe regions have developed a forensic findings sheet which helps in drawing up professional and legally watertight documentation on injuries resulting from violence. “Detailed documentation can be decisive in providing evidence in a court case,” says Prof. Bettina Pfleiderer, who supervised the dissertation and has headed projects and given seminars on domestic violence for many years now. “Doing nothing should never be an option,” she adds.
The research gaps which Jana Bregulla’s dissertation laid bare were a reason to include dentistry in a new pan-European research project entitled “Victim Protection in Medicine”. In the coming three years, a team of researchers headed by Bettina Pfleiderer will be drawing up concrete teaching plans in which dealing with domestic violence is to be embedded not only in university teaching for prospective doctors and dentists, but also in further training programmes for physicians and medical professionals.
Author: Kathrin Kottke
This article is from the university newspaper wissen|leben No. 5, 12 July 2023.