Practice Educator investigates healthcare professionals preparation for patient disclosures of sexual assault

Claire Robinson, Practice Educator in Sexual Health for North of Tyne, has just completed a research scholarship for her Masters at Northumbria University. She investigated how professionals who may encounter disclosures of sexual assault should be prepared for this role. Claire’s scholarship was with the Florence Nightingale Foundation and is sponsored by NHS Professionals.


What made you decide to apply for a scholarship with the Florence Nightingale Foundation?
Florence Nightingale is universally identified as the founder of modern nursing. The Florence Nightingale Foundation has a fantastic reputation for supporting and promoting innovation. As a student nurse, I read some research about a nurse who was looking into the role of the sexual assault nurse examiner as part of a travel scholarship, this interested me greatly and I realised I wanted to specialise in sexual health. This particular nurse had been funded by the Florence Nightingale Foundation to complete her study, so I always had the Foundation in the back of my mind as being supportive with researching sensitive areas of our profession. When I got to the dissertation part of my Masters, the Florence Nightingale Foundation was immediately the first place I thought of approaching for funding.

Why did you choose to research this particular topic?
I’ve worked in sexual health for a long time; although my specialism is sexual health, my specific area of interest is improving the journey of complainants of sexual assault. From my time working in sexual health, I noticed inconsistencies to the way that complainants of sexual assault are managed.

I personally had never received formal training on how to manage the disclosure of a sexual assault. As it is such an important issue, I really wanted to make sure we are getting it right. My initial inclination was that we weren’t, which is why I wanted to explore the subject further to see if this shortcoming was just in my area of practice or further afield.

What were your main findings?
One of the main findings from the research was that participants emphasised the lack of formal training they received to prepare them to manage these disclosures. As professionals, whether nurse’s, teacher’s pharmacists GP’s (etc.) we are expected to manage disclosures of sexual assault to improve the outcome for that complainant; however, in reality, it’s an area in which we rarely receive training and education. The consequences of sexual assault on the complainant’s future health and wellbeing can be substantial, how we manage that initial disclosure is paramount.

One of the other key findings was the lack of research in how best we could be preparing professionals to manage the disclosure of sexual assault. There is a substantial body of evidence focusing on the experience of disclosure reaction and how it may have a negative impact on the level of post-traumatic stress disorder that people might display after an assault. Yet, from my literature review I was unable to find any research that is UK based. As there is no formal preparation for professionals, it makes management of the disclosure inconsistent. It is important that professionals know all the different options so they can guide the complainant, to ensure they are making an informed decision about what they want to do following their disclosure of sexual assault.

Participants also identified they would benefit from an interdisciplinary workshop to gain skills and knowledge to manage disclosures of sexual assault. This would allow professionals from all fields to learn both with and from each other as role uncertainty was another finding from the study.

What were your key recommendations?
We need to be investing in research in this field in the UK. A lot of the research discussed in my dissertation came from the US and concerned the effects of disclosure on post-traumatic stress disorder. Should this research be replicated in the UK we may find we have different outcomes due the social context of our country and healthcare access. One of the main lessons from this study is that the government funding agencies need to start investing in UK based research around sexual assault disclosure, specifically how professionals should manage sexual assault disclosures. There is a fantastic investment in making sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) accessible and the reporting process easier for complainants of sexual assault, however if we do not get the disclosure management right evidence suggests the complainant will rarely get as far as accessing SARCs. The participants in my research said they would find it beneficial to have a standardised care pathway in place throughout the region in order to manage disclosures of sexual assault. We are currently in the process of devising this in our region in partnership with SARC, sexual health centres and the safeguarding teams. I’m aware that it is already in place in other regions across the country but it will be exciting for us to facilitate this in our region.

How are you planning to help take forward the recommendations?
The care pathway is a small part of what I’m doing to push forward the recommendations. I’ve started to disseminate my results and findings of the project to some of the service leads and commissioners for sexual health services in the regional area. I’m also currently writing up my dissertation to be published in a peered review journal. I’m hoping to reach as many people as possible, specifically from a safeguarding and public health perspective; I will be submitting abstracts or a poster for presentation to conferences around the country to share the research.

Has the scholarship had a positive impact on your role in any way?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t have conducted the research had I not been successful in receiving the scholarship and for that I will be eternally grateful to both the Florence Nightingale Foundation and NHS Professionals. I have gained leadership skills, collaborated with other professions and have learnt a lot through the role of the facilitator. The scholarship has made me passionate about research and the impact it has on healthcare. Being a part of this has encouraged me to pursue this area further; I’d love to expand the project into a doctoral thesis, which hopefully I’ll be looking at doing very soon. As a nurse you are continually growing, now I’ve done a Masters, it seems sensible to put this into practice and start a wider study.

Would you recommend research scholarships to other nurses who want to further their career?
I would definitely recommend conducting a research project to other nurses, and a scholarship is a great way of not only funding this, but it opens up a wider range of opportunities. I’ve learnt many nurses think they can go to their employing organisation to ask for funding to access further education or research, but I would recommend widening your scope, as there are many other opportunities available.

About the author

NHS Professionals administrator

NHS Professionals manages the temporary staffing needs of around 66 NHS Trusts across England. An integral part of the NHS, it aims to reduce Trusts’ spending on flexible workers without compromising quality, by providing greater transparency of demand and supplying bank staff at the best possible rate. Its bank of more than 40,000 flexible workers comprises general and specialist nurses, doctors, midwives, admin/clerical , allied health professionals, healthcare scientists, support services among other healthcare professionals.

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