Nurses Day 'hero': Hawke's Bay anti-family violence champion

April 2015 Vol 15 (2)

Blanket screening for family violence in primary health is the dream of family violence intervention champion Debs Higgins of Hastings Health Centre.

Debs HigginsDebs Higgins is clearly embarrassed by the title “nursing hero”. When asked how she qualifies for such an honour, she immediately offers a self-deprecating response, which in turn draws an interjection from a nearby colleague: “Yes, she is [a hero]. She is”.

A nurse with 26 years’ experience, Higgins spent the first 21 years at the Tairawhiti District Health Board and the past five years with The Hastings Health Centre (HHC).

The farmer (managing a property with her husband) and mother of three children aged 10 to 17 recently added a Master of Nursing degree from EIT in Taradale to her list of accomplishments. Her thesis, predictably enough, was on family violence intervention. It drew on five years of statistics and data from the Hastings Health Centre’s screening programme.

Higgins took over as the Family Violence Intervention Programme coordinator at the centre in 2011, with routine screening of women and children having started at HHC three years earlier. The programme was initially developed with support from the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board (HBDHB) and the Hawke’s Bay Medical
Research Foundation, and HHC was the first primary care provider in New Zealand to establish such a programme. “Screening is across the board here. It’s entrenched in daily activity – a cultural norm,” she
says.

“We have more than 40 nurses, 25 doctors and most of our receptionists involved in it, all ably supported by our champions team of 10 family violence intervention champions (nine nurses and a doctor), a clinical support nurse and myself.

“It would be my dream that every doctor and nurse is routinely screening at every opportunity, because the opportunities are great. Eighty per cent of women see their GP once a year. And it’s known that the victims of domestic violence see their GP seven times more often than non-victims.

Higgens says that a blanket screening approach is what is needed in primary care but it’s not happening yet.

“While our programme has been adapted to suit primary care from the VIP programme used in hospitals, in reality we have more potential to come across the victims of violence in primary care than the hospital system does.”

Once the ‘red flag’ is raised, it is time to refer victims on to relevant agencies and experts. To celebrate International Nurses Day this year, Nursing Review once again invited district health boards and organisations across the country to contribute stories on their nursing ‘heroes’. Yet again we were sent amazing stories about some of the unsung, innovative, compassionate, high-achieving and dedicated nurses who make up the New Zealand nursing workforce. Read on…

International Nurses Day Celebrating International Nurses Day ‘heroes’ “We’ve had 13 perpetrators ask for help for their family violence problem since screening started at The Hastings Health Centre,” says Higgens.

“Our programme covers the spectrum – elder abuse and neglect, child abuse and neglect, partner screening, victims of sexual assault. It was initially an in-house programme but now, in collaboration with Health Hawke’s Bay (PHO) and with support from HBDHB, we train other doctors and nurses.”

Higgens says it’s important to recognise that family violence is not defined by religion, socioeconomic factors or ethnicity.

“I live rurally, and there are a lot of stressed rural men. So things can go wrong in that community, which is often viewed by those outside it as wealthy. There is no one stereotype. Some are just more adept at hiding it.”

Dr Faye Clark of Doctors for Sexual Abuse Care recently described The Hastings Health Centre as a “centre of excellence” for family violence intervention in primary care.

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