Radiologists, who typically interact little with patients, can play a key role in identifying victims of abuse by spotting patterns of injuries that point to domestic violence, researchers said Tuesday.
Abuse victims, most often women, have more face, skull and arm fractures than other patients, combined with high rates of asthma, chronic pain and suicide attempts, a team at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston reported.
The signs of abuse can be detected by radiologists, who specialize in interpreting images such as X-rays, given that such victims undergo four times more emergency-related imaging exams than other patients, the researchers said.
The abuse can be physical, sexual and psychological, they said.
"There's a wealth of information that's available to us as radiologists," said Dr. Elizabeth George, chief resident in the department of radiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a lead researcher of the report.
"There might be indications on the prior imaging, and if you see a pattern, that could alert you to something else going on in this case, such as violence."
The World Health Organization reports that one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.
The Violence Policy Center, a research and advocacy group focused on gun violence, reported that more than half the women murdered in the United States last year were killed by current or former romantic partners.
Signs of abuse can be easily missed in a busy hospital emergency department, George said.
The researchers also said hospital records may not identify or report certain injuries as abuse.
"Survivors need someone there who knows what's happening," said Ruth Glenn, head of the Colorado-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
"That alone can plant the seed to find safety. The medical field is perfectly set up to do this."
Turning the findings into action to help victims will require a coordinated effort among radiologists, social workers, emergency room doctors and others, George told Reuters.
More than 96 percent of U.S. victims of violence at the hands of an intimate partner are women, and the highest rates occur among black and Hispanic women, according to the report, published in Radiology, a journal of the Radiological Society of North America.