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Published: Tuesday, 4/3/2001

Michigan shields health workers who report abuse


MONROE - Robert Ouellette has seen it time and again, battered people seeking refuge in his Monroe County shelter.

He welcomes a new state law giving immunity to health care providers who report incidents of domestic violence, said the executive director of the Family Counseling and Shelter Services in Monroe.

“I say that's a very positive kind of step,” Mr. Ouellette said. “I think it can't help but have some impact at hopefully reducing the abuse that is happening.”

While some say the state's domestic violence legislation may have some impact on the trust between patients and their doctors, many doctors and victim advocacy groups think the law that took effect Sunday is a good tool to fight domestic violence.

Michigan lawmakers first enacted domestic violence laws in 1931. These laws required employees of hospitals and pharmacies to report acts of violence to local authorities. Physicians and pharmacists who violated the law were guilty of a misdemeanor.

With hopes of strengthening the laws, legislators introduced additional language in 1999 that gave doctors immunity from lawsuits when they report suspected acts of domestic violence.

The law passed in December with no opposition in either house, said State Rep. Doug Spade (D., Adrian).

“We need to do everything we can to encourage reporting of these incidents,” he said. “We're never going to be able to stop domestic violence or help it if we don't have these incidents reported.”

But Dr. James Weber, an emergency room physician at University of Michigan Hospitals, said doctors are conflicted about the law. Often, he said, victims ask their doctors not to tell authorities about the crime because their partners promise it will never happen again.

Doris Whorley worked in the emergency department at Hillsdale Community Health Center for 20 years. Now the center's director of nurses, Ms. Whorley said it is common practice at the hospital to report violence to the police.

And most attending physicians are happy to oblige.

“We look at what's best for the patient or victim and we make sure they're protected,” she said. “I can't help but believe that it certainly has helped somewhere along the line.”

Ms. Whorley admits that sometimes patients do not want the information reported, or they lie about the circumstances that brought about the injury. That, she said, puts doctors in the position of having to report incidents against their patients' wishes.

“To my knowledge we've never lost any patients because of that,” she said. “We can never be sure if an incident is domestic violence so we just report the incident and then leave it up to those people who deal with this more to investigate.”

According to information compiled on domestic violence, one out of every four women is a victim of domestic violence at least once in her lifetime.

In Ohio, laws regarding the reporting of domestic violence are not as stringent. Although everyone is required to report a felony, and physicians must report incidents of child or elder abuse, there are no laws telling doctors to call police if they are dealing with a battered adult.

But doctors are required to document such violence in their patients' medical records, said Chris Slagle, spokesman for the attorney general's office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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