By Steven Reinberg
FRIDAY, Oct. 21, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Victims of sexual assault are seeking treatment at U.S. emergency rooms in growing numbers, and researchers at the University of Michigan (UM) found a 15 percent increase times between 2006 and 2019.
Rape and other forms of sexual assault occur every 68 seconds in the United States, with the number rising from 93,000 in 2006 to nearly 140,000 in 2019, according to data from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
However, the increase in people seeking emergency medical attention after sexual violence is greater than the increase in people going to the police for help, the study authors said.
And while more sexual assaults are occurring, heightened awareness and changes in hospital coding are also contributing to the increase, the researchers noted.
“General destigmatization, whether it’s due to the Me-Too movement or other sociopolitical movements, has made people feel safer coming in and seeking care,” said lead researcher Emily Vogt, a UM medical student.
It’s not clear whether people who go to the emergency room after a sexual assault don’t go to the police, Vogt added. Perhaps they “feel like that’s the only place they can go,” he said.
For the study, Vogt and his colleagues used data from millions of emergency department visits. They found that in 2006, more than 3,600 men and women ages 18 to 65 sought emergency care after a sexual assault. In 2019, that number increased to nearly 55,300. (For help, contact RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network hotline.)
Vogt’s team found that those seeking emergency room treatment were disproportionately younger and poorer women.
However, despite the increase in urgent care, hospital admissions after sexual assault decreased by 8%, from just under 13% to 4%. Most of the patients (95%) were sent home, the findings showed.
Admissions may have dropped due to lack of insurance, fewer empty beds or victims not wanting to be hospitalized due to privacy concerns, Vogt said.
Patients admitted tended to be poorer and had Medicaid. Victims ages 46 to 65 were also more likely to be hospitalized than younger people, possibly because the assault exacerbated other medical conditions, Vogt said.
Overall, emergency department visits increased 23% over the same period, with sexual assault accounting for less than 1% of visits. However, hospital charges for sexual assault visits exceeded $233 million in 2019, up from $6 million in 2006, the researchers reported.
ERs can better help patients after sexual assault, Vogt said. “The emergency department, even though it’s a better place to go than going nowhere, is probably not the best place. We need better kinds of outpatient care,” she suggested.
Vogt anticipates that the number of sexual assaults will continue to rise. “We didn’t even get to see the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we already know from other studies has definitely increased rates of sexual assault,” he explained.
“A lot of these patients are sent home and it’s not clear if they’re getting the care they deserve,” Vogt said. “We know that these patients are at increased risk of [post-traumatic stress disorder]substance abuse and psychiatric problems as a result of the trauma they have experienced.
The report was published online Oct. 20 in JAMA Network Open.
Dr. Elizabeth Miller is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She said that sexual violence remains a major public health problem.
“Sexual violence reporting and care seeking are not evenly distributed across populations, and inequalities persist,” Miller said. “The health consequences of sexual violence remain underrecognized by our health care system, especially among survivors who are marginalized due to sexism, racism, heterosexism, and ableism,” added Miller, co-author of an accompanying editorial in Magazine.
Miller agreed that there is a heightened awareness of sexual violence and a growing incidence.
“As a result of many community campaigns to make sexual assault experiences more visible, it seems that more people are seeking care. But it seems that globally, we saw an increase in interpersonal violence, including child sexual abuse, sexual assault and bullying.” intimate partner violence during the pandemic,” she said.
And he noted that people who are already marginalized due to their gender identity, sexual minorities, women and people with disabilities experience a higher incidence of sexual violence.
Miller added that sexual assault survivors should expect to be treated with respect by police and emergency room personnel. “They should know that they can also request a trained sexual assault nurse examiner, and they can also request that a victim services advocate be present during a forensic exam,” she said.
However, more is needed to improve survivor-centered care in emergency rooms. “We need to understand how best to provide meaningful support to survivors and not help re-traumatize people who have been assaulted,” Miller said.