WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden called domestic violence a "public health epidemic" that requires urgent attention in an address Friday to an audience of the country's preeminent medical, public health and domestic violence experts.
"All of you in this room who are doctors, nurses, researchers, social workers from all across the country, the fact that we are talking today about domestic violence as a public health epidemic is because of you," he said. "We have come such a long way in our fight against this epidemic, but we have to keep making the case even stronger for prevention and intervention."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly one-third of U.S. women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Domestic violence is associated with an array of health problems. In the short-term, physical violence can result in serious injuries or even death. At least one-third of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by male intimate partners. But studies have found that domestic violence has long-term health consequences as well.
"According to the CDC and other research, the chronic stress from domestic violence is toxic to the body," Biden said, calling the science "compelling." "It's associated with long-term health problems like asthma, diabetes, anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse."
Domestic violence has been a signature issue for Biden for decades. In 1990, he introduced the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which was signed into law in 1994. Biden said when he first took on domestic violence, he was told he was going to break up families. "We knew that we had to bring this dirty little secret out into the public," he said.
Throughout his speech Friday, the vice president emphasized that domestic violence survivors should not feel responsible for the violence they've suffered.
"It is never, never, never, never, never the victim's fault," he said to rousing applause.
Biden made his comments at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence, where over 1,100 health care professionals met to discuss the relationship between domestic violence and health, and to learn about the latest research. The conference, organized by nonprofit Futures Without Violence, is held biennially.
Earlier in the program, Marylouise Kelley, PhD, Family Violence Prevention and Services Program Director at the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said health care professionals are in a unique position to prevent, screen and treat survivors.
"We know that many domestic violence survivors will not go to a shelter," she said, "but they may be more likely to talk to a friend or family member or to a medical provider."
In his speech, Biden applauded progress made by the Affordable Care Act, which requires health plans to cover domestic violence screenings at no cost. Biden said those screenings, in which a health professional asks a patient questions about their exposure to intimate partner violence, have a real tangible impact. "The mere fact you asked the question lets them know that they're not alone," he said.
Yolanda Haywood, a practicing emergency physician and associate dean at George Washington School for Medicine and Heath Sciences, shared her own harrowing story of being treated for a domestic violence-related injury over 30 years ago.
She said she made a late-night emergency room visit after her husband punched her in the mouth. While she encountered many medical professionals in the course of her visit, no one asked her what happened or if she was safe.
Finally, she said, after her doctor sutured her lip, he asked her who caused her injury.
"I became hopeful," she told the audience. "I answered, 'My husband.'"
His reply: "'You need to learn how to duck.'"
Haywood said she spent the next several years learning to duck instead of finding support to leave. She said providers should be trained to educate patients about domestic violence so that they can make wise decisions.
"What was lost that night in the ER was the opportunity to offer hope and compassion to a young woman who needed help," Haywood said. "Hope and compassion are great medicine, not just nice words that pacify."