Hidden wounds: When doctors experience intimate partner violence

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 9, 2023

Key Takeaways

Intimate partner violence (IPV) among physicians is an important topic that is rarely discussed.[] Rates of IPV experienced by physicians can range from 7% to 24% for female physicians and from 6% to 10% for male physicians, according to a review conducted by Loma Linda University researchers.[]

One anonymous physician's experience

“I was 13 weeks pregnant in my 4th year of residency and had just gotten home from a 24-hour shift. The house was a mess, but I needed to sleep for a few hours before I did any chores. I was in a relationship with an emotionally and verbally abusive partner, but I did not realize the extent of the abuse until that evening.

"My partner [at the time] came inside from doing chores and became angry that I was sleeping. His temper escalated into a physical altercation, and I ended up losing the baby that evening. I was too scared to contact the police and press charges. I packed my bags, went to work the next day, and stayed at a friend's house until I was able to find a place of my own.

"I finished my residency training without telling anyone in my program what I experienced, and it was not until years later that I joined a support group and allowed myself to experience the grief, trauma, and emotions that I kept bottled up inside.” 

—Anonymous emergency medicine physician

We wear a mask to hide our pain

No matter how much pain we face in our personal lives, physicians put on a brave face and continue to take care of their patients, tending to their needs for hours each day.

We choose to put our anger, depression, sadness, and trauma behind us when we walk into patient care facilities. 

When patients and the general public view physicians, they often see them as professional and educated individuals with money and privilege. They don’t see them as victims of abuse. 

"Unfortunately, this false narrative and image perpetuate the stereotypes of victims of abuse, as well as the shame that victims of IPV face."

Kristen Fuller, MD

In 2016, Dr. Elana Fric, wife, mother, and family physician, was killed by her husband, a neurosurgeon, after serving him divorce papers.[]

In 2018, Dr. Tamara O’Neal, an ER physician, was shot and killed by her ex-fiance in a Chicago hospital parking lot.[]

In 2019, a University of Utah family medicine resident, Dr. Sara Hawley, was shot and killed by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide.[]

We don't discuss our domestic abuse

Intimate partner abuse against physicians is often hidden and doesn't come to light until something horrific occurs. Physicians might not want to discuss their private matters regarding their abusive partner out of shame. They may fear judgment from their colleagues, and if they report it to the state board or their employer, they risk losing a job for which they spent 10 to 15 years in training.

 If they do choose to disclose their abuse to their colleagues and employer, they may risk being labeled as “unstable,” or they may be encouraged to “work it out” with their partner. Patients and coworkers may feel inconvenienced if the physician has to go to court or take time off work to stay at a safe space away from their abusive partner. The physician may feel guilty for having to take this time off work; they may even be perceived as having a low work ethic related to not bringing enough revenue to the practice. 

Physicians in an abusive relationship may also be holding on to the idea that their partner will eventually change; they may feel guilty for leaving the abusive relationship. They may even feel like they deserve the abuse because they spend so much time at work, away from home and their partner, especially if the abusive partner is providing care for the child. 

They may be scared to go to an ER or urgent care out of fear they will run into a coworker or physician they know in the community. 

When the abusive partner seeks revenge

If the physician chooses to leave the relationship, the abuse can continue indefinitely but in other ways that may jeopardize the physician’s mental health, career, financial well-being, and reputation. The abusive spouse may go to the state board and physician’s employer and make false allegations. They may drag out court settlements and divorce/child support proceedings, forcing the physicians to deal with hefty legal fees.

Unfortunately, the abuse doesn't stop at home, and could last months, years, and even decades—especially if children, pets, and shared assets are involved. 

Seeking help 

It is the responsibility of the medical community to talk openly about physician abuse at home in order to break the stigma and improve our understanding of physicians' experience with IPV.

When a physician's home is no longer a safe space due to IPV, their clinical practice is affected. Therefore, hospitals and private practices should encourage therapy for the physician, provide access to physician-appropriate resources, and allow ample time off for the physician to heal and take care of any legal or financial responsibilities. 

If you are a physician experiencing abuse at home, call a friend, then an attorney. Get to a safe place, notify your employer, and don’t focus on how any of this will affect your work. Your career is important, but your safety and health are more important. 

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

Read Next: Unsafe haven: The rise of violence against physicians in the workplace
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