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Recognizing and reporting child physical abuse: a survey of primary healthcare professionals


  • Anne Lazenbatt BSc DPhil,

  • Ruth Freeman BSc PhD

Anne Lazenbatt,
Department of Psychology,
School of Nursing and Midwifery,
Queen's University Belfast,
50 Elmwood Avenue,
Belfast BT7 1NN,


Aim.  This paper reports a study of the self-reported ability and behaviours of primary healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland to recognise child physical abuse. A secondary aim was to assess the educational and training needs of these professionals.

Background.  In the United Kingdom, 7% of children suffer serious physical abuse by a parent or carer, and two children aged under 15 years die from abuse each week. Recognizing child physical abuse depends on the knowledge and skills of a variety of healthcare professionals.

Methods.  A stratified random sample of 979 nurses, doctors, and dentists working in primary care in Northern Ireland were sent a postal questionnaire; 419 responded, giving a 43% response rate. The data were collected in 2002–2003.

Findings.  In their working lives 60% (251) said that they had seen a suspicious child physical abuse case; however, only 47% (201) had reported a suspicious case to the authorities, leaving a 13% gap in reporting. Although 74% (310) of respondents were aware of some of the mechanisms for reporting child physical abuse, 79% (332) requested further education on this topic. Ability to recognize and willingness to report abuse cases discriminated between the three professional groups. Compared with doctors or dentists, community nurses were statistically significantly more likely to recognize and report suspicions of child physical abuse, and were the group most aware of child abuse issues and the most willing to become involved in abuse cases.

Conclusions.  The findings suggest that professional fears and anxieties and lack of knowledge act as barriers to recognizing and reporting abuse and that more specific education and support for primary care professionals is required.