Registed Nurses' Association of Ontario


Northwestern Health Unit introduces program to protect women from violence

KENORA, Dec. 4, 2007 – As the National Day of Action and Remembrance on Violence Against Women (Dec. 6) approaches, the Northwestern Health Unit is preparing to launch a program that will help protect women from emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Beginning early in 2008, public health nurses working in the Northwestern Health Unit’s sexual health clinics in Kenora, Dryden, Fort Frances and Sioux Lookout will be trained to ask all clients over the age of 12 about their past and present experiences of abuse. Most of the people who visit the clinics are women, but male clients will also be screened for violence.

“Violence is a significant public health issue with serious health consequences,” explains Arlene Lesenke, Clinical Services Program Manager. “Most people will not talk to their health care provider about the violence in their lives unless asked directly. Implementing abuse screening represents a very important step for the Health Unit. People who visit sexual health clinics often have symptoms related to violence, but may not even be aware that they are experiencing abuse. They may only understand their situation after reading information on abuse or discussing abuse issues with a public health nurse.”

The Northwestern Health Unit’s new abuse screening program is funded by a community grant from the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Victim Services Secretariat branch and is based on recommendations outlined in a best practice guideline developed by the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO). The guideline Woman Abuse: Screening, Identification and Initial Response, which is based on the best evidence available, reinforces the important role that nurses can play in preventing violence. A number of health-care organizations in Ontario have already implemented the guideline and routinely screen all females for abuse.

“Nurses require specialized training in order to recognize key intersections between violence and health,” says Lesenke. “While some nurses at our sexual health clinics already ask clients about violence, it most often occurs when there is some evidence that the person has been abused. We want to get to the point where every nurse is asking the question every time and feels comfortable doing so. We want to support our staff and give them the education needed.”

A large component of the education sessions will focus on providing nurses with the knowledge and skills to be able to comfortably and openly assess and support women in a non-judgmental, caring, and sensitive manner. This approach to counseling is highly effective in helping women cope with violent situations and make necessary life changes. One of the educators is Kathleen Fitzgerald, an RN who helped develop RNAO’s guideline and manages the Sexual Assault/Partner Abuse Program at Lake of the Woods District Hospital. “I’ll be teaching the nurses how to phrase the questions and how to respond to a woman’s answers. For example, what do you say if a woman says she isn’t being abused, but all the signs suggest that she is? I’ll tell them how to deal with situations like this and ones where safety is a concern.”

The Northwestern Health Unit provides programs and services to people of all ages in the areas of health protection, prevention and promotion. It is the most westerly situated of all Ontario’s 36 public health units, serving the Kenora-Rainy River Districts. The catchment area for the organization comprises approximately one-fifth of Ontario.

RNAO’s ambitious Best Practice Guidelines Program, funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, was launched in 1999 to provide the best available evidence for patient care across a wide spectrum of health-care areas. The 36 guidelines developed to date focus on direct client care areas and healthy work environments and are a substantive contribution towards building excellence in Ontario’s health-care system. They are available to nurses and other health care professionals across Canada and abroad.

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario is the professional association representing registered nurses in Ontario. Since 1925, RNAO has lobbied for healthy public policy, promoted excellence in nursing practice, increased nurses’ contribution to shaping the health-care system, and influenced decisions that affect nurses and the public they serve. To learn more about RNAO’s Nursing Best Guidelines Program or to view these resources please visit


For more information, please contact:
Marion Zych, Director of Communications, RNAO
Phone: 416-408-5605
Toll free: 1-800-268-7199 ext.209
Cell: 647-406-5605