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Doctor spearheads forum to take on domestic abuse

Dr. Mohit Bhandari, an orthopedic surgeon at Hamilton General Hospital and McMaster University professor, leads an initiative that seeks to identify and help orthopedic patients whose injuries are the result of domestic violence.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Mohit Bhandari, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Hamilton Health Sciences Centre, was in Mumbai on Dec. 17, along with several of his colleagues, when the news broke out of the gang rape of 23-year old Indian medical student in Delhi, who later died.

"We were in India to share with the Indian colleagues our research work on intimate partner violence against women. For the first time I saw how suddenly there was an uproar in the entire country – men and women alike out in the streets," said Dr. Bhandari, Canada Research Chair in Musculoskeletal Trauma, in a recent interview. "It was horrible."

While some people blame India's patriarchal society, Dr. Bhandari, who is participating in an international study of partner violence to be released in June, says it's a misperception that the majority of violence against women – even in developed nations – occurs because of race or socioeconomic status. It cuts across ethnicity, he says. Also there's no evidence that alcohol or mental illness cause it. "Men, who assault their partners, rarely assault their friends, neighbours, bosses, or strangers," he says, noting that as many as as 300,000 women experience partner violence each year in Ontario alone.

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Dr. Bhandari is the co-sponsor, with Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women, of a roundtable forum, "Reduce Abuse – The Change Begins," on Feb. 15 at the Police Division 31 (near Finch and the 400). He spoke with The Globe about how he and other doctors are working toward identifying and helping victims of domestic abuse who so often show up in their offices or emergency rooms.

You have done extensive research on violence against women?

We have conducted the largest study of its kind, titled PRAISE (Prevalence of Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence Surgical Evaluation), which will be presented at the Canadian Orthopedic Association conference in Winnipeg in June. As many as 80 investigators globally got together and conducted this cross-sectional study of close to 3,000 women at 12 orthopedic fracture clinics in Canada, the U.S., India, Denmark and the Netherlands. One in six women disclosed a history of intimate partner violence within the last year.

Why does it happen?

Honestly, I don't understand why it happens.

You and your staff now have a questionnaire that women are expected to answer before they get treatment.

We have started this to evaluate and to understand what's happening with women coming to our orthopedic clinic. We – a group of orthopedic surgeons, psychologists, social and health-care workers – have detailed cases of 263 such women and 144 physical injuries to these women, with the goal of trying to understand as an orthopedic community what we can do … to frame right questions to ask these women. It is important that surgeons are understanding, responsive and empathetic to their issues.

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Do you give advice to these women?

Our goal is to make sure these women are out of this abusive situation. We have asked surgeons to ask their patient "whether she feels safe at home; do you feel safe in your intimate relationship?" It is, however, not [within] the surgeon's comfort zone to begin counselling. Our role is to identify and transfer their care to a social worker at the hospital or an appropriate sector that has resources. If [a woman] discloses, we have to assure her that this is not her fault and we have to provide safety for her, by transferring her care to an expert, one who can help her in the longer term.

What's the objective of the Feb. 15 conference?

I believe in education, knowledge and action. Action occurs when experts and the leaders unite. Ultimately, intimate partner violence is not just a health-care problem. It is not social services problem or just a problem with a legal aspect. It is an issue that requires a multi-disciplinary approach.

This particular roundtable is expected to connect multi-disciplinary leadership to actually start a discussion and to continue a dialogue towards better and safer communities. It is also for women to allow us to create a new agenda, that might in fact differ from what we have done in the past – actionable items that we can take forward.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Ajit Jain is Toronto-based journalist and author.

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