App Could Ease The Shame And Discomfort Victims Feel When Reporting Abuse

Sep 27, 2016

A new app developed by a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center doctor could make it easier for health care providers to identify victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
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An app could be key in helping track sexual assaults and domestic violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Chief of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UPMC Children’s Hospital, said she and a team of researchers have developed an app called TIPS, or Trauma Informed Personalized Scrips, to help health care professionals identify women who are victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. 

“Women are much, much more likely to respond about what’s going on in their lives to a computer than they are face-to-face for reasons like shame (and) fear of consequences of disclosure,” Miller said.

Some local women’s health clinics are already testing the app, which asks female patients sensitive questions prior to regular checkups and exams. It's still in the testing phase, but prior to an exam, a patient will answer questions through the app such as, “Has a partner ever forced you to have sex when you didn’t want to?” or, “Has a partner ever physically hurt (hit, kick, slap, choke) you?”

The questions are designed to cover less obvious types of abuse, like reproductive coercion.

“One of my own patients that I diagnosed with a pregnancy when she was 19 … burst into tears when I told her,” Miller said. “She said ‘I didn’t want to be pregnant, but he wanted to get me pregnant. I wanted to finish school.’”

Miller said the teen was reluctant to try certain types of birth control because she said her husband monitored her menstrual cycle.

The app also offers suggestions for physicians about what type of medical care is most needed, what resources can be offered and how to begin a potentially life-saving discussion, Miller said. It’s one of many ways technology is being used to prevent and stop abuse, according to the organization Women in Bio, which brought female leaders in science, technology and health care together at a Thrival Festival event last week.

Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Janet Necessary also attended. Necessary works in the Crimes Against Persons Units, prosecuting cases in adult and child sex assault, as well as elder abuse. She said domestic and sexual abuse affects more people than many realize.  

“I don’t think the public has any idea exactly what goes on or how common these things are,” Necessary said.

Dr. Ria David of Pittsburgh-based Cybergenetics speaking at an event at Thrival Festival on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016.
Credit Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

New advances in DNA analysis are helping prosecutors like Necessary, she said.

Women often are reluctant to report crimes or go to the hospital, but DNA experts like Dr. Ria David, from Pittsburgh-based Cybergenetics, said victims’ actions immediately following an assault are crucial for preserving evidence.

“The first thing I would tell any woman is that if you have been sexually assaulted, the DNA is on you,” David said. “It could be inside you, but it could also be on your clothing. It’s very important you report that and have the evidence taken properly.”

Female scientists and physicians at the event said they hope by speaking directly to other women, they will empower victims to protect themselves and take action.

“Because when you have information, that’s when you have power,” David said.

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • The social media app Snapchat is getting into the high-tech specs business. It's created eyeglasses that record up to 10 seconds of video at a time by tapping a button. The video is then uploaded to the app via Bluetooth or WiFi. They’re called “Spectacles” and will soon be available for $130.
  • This year’s freshman computer science class at Carnegie Mellon University looks a little different from previous years. Women now make up nearly half of the student enrollment. At 48 percent, it’s a record in gender diversity for CMU. The school has made strides in promoting computer science careers among high school girls and this academic year, it saw a 38 percent increase in female applicants.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.