An associate dean of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Nursing and her research team recently received a $1.2 million grant to study the effects of sexual violence on college campuses. 

Dr. Kathy Hutchinson, associate dean of graduate programs and research for nursing at URI, is a principal investigator of the study, alongside mutual principal investigator Dr. Melissa Sutherland, a professor of nursing at Binghamton University in New York. 

The goal of the study is to increase awareness of sexual violence as well as encourage more colleges to screen for violence when students visit health centers. The study will also help determine which methods of screening are most effective and when is acceptable to screen. 

Sexual violence screening involves asking patients questions such as “Have you ever been emotionally or physically abused by your partner or someone important to you?”; “Within the last year, have you been hit, slapped, kicked or otherwise physically hurt by someone? If yes, by whom? How many times?”; and “Are you afraid of your partner?”

According to Hutchinson, only around 10 percent of female college students get asked sexual violence screening questions at campus health centers.

“It’s just such a missed opportunity; to pick up if college women are experiencing violence, to get them hooked into services, to reduce the long term sequelae and prevent future violence if they’re currently in violent situations,” Hutchinson said. “That got us interested in doing more with this.”

With the grant money, Hutchinson and Sutherland will survey health care providers at 300 to 400 colleges and universities throughout the country, hoping to get responses from about 1,900 nurse practitioners, physician assistants and physicians. The researchers will conduct interviews with some of these providers to get a more detailed understanding of their sexual violence screening practices. They will also hold focus groups with female students to hear about their experiences with screening.

According to Hutchinson, thus far in their preliminary findings, neither having a sexual violence screening policy nor having an electronic health record for student patients made a difference in the likelihood of screening. However, they have found that health centers that utilize electronic health records that remind health care workers to ask sexual violence questions through screening prompts increased the probability that they would actually do so. 

While it is unclear why the percentage of sexual violence screening is so low throughout the country, Hutchinson and Sutherland hope to uncover more of this with the grant they’ve received and the research they will continue to conduct. 

“Based on some of the preliminary work we’ve done, sometimes health care providers don’t necessarily think that if a person’s coming in for a sprained ankle that they should necessarily be asking if they’ve had any experiences with violence,” Sutherland said. “Some of that’s just getting health care providers some of the education and the understanding that it’s something that needs to be done.”

The researchers data collection is currently scheduled to start in the spring, but both Hutchinson and Sutherland expect challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Sutherland, the national survey will incorporate additional questions about COVID-19’s effect on sexual violence screening, focusing on telehealth sexual violence screening and how screening has changed over recent months due to the focus on coronavirus testing. 

“We obviously are concerned,” Sutherland said about the potential impact of COVID-19 on sexual violence. “I think a lot of things are, for lack of a better word, on pause, and I’m not saying that that is intentional, [but] violence is a crisis too, it’s just that you only have so many hours in a day and so many resources, so how do you make sure you’re doing everything you possibly can when you have multiple issues you’re trying to address and focus on? I think it’s challenging.” 

Hutchinson emphasized that although it will be challenging to continue their study amid the pandemic, right now is a critical time to conduct this study throughout the country. 

“I think the violence epidemic in college women was bad enough, but I think now you’ve got this very strange interaction and intersection with the COVID pandemic that is just even more complicated,” Hutchinson said.