Successful GP-led program to tackle family violence set to expand across Melbourne’s west and north

Pregnant women pictured sitting, talking to nurse.
  9 June 2023  NWMPHN   

A pilot program that trained doctors, nurses and other general practice staff to identify and support patients experiencing family violence has been declared a major success following an in-depth evaluation commissioned by the Australian Government.

The program, known as Primary Care Pathways to Safety, was rolled out by North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network (NWMPHN) and involved practices in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs. It was part of a national series of pilots, involving several primary health networks, called Improving Health System Responses to Family and Domestic Violence.

Following the successful evaluation – conducted by Sydney-based independent research organisation the Sax Institute – it is set to be expanded across the region and run until mid-2026.

Primary Care Pathways to Safety was co-designed by NWMPHN and University of Melbourne’s Safer Families Centre of Research Excellence. It comprised education and training sessions, underpinned by self-directed quality improvement activities.

It assisted all staff, from receptionists to clinicians, to safely ask patients if they were experiencing, or at risk of, family violence (FV). For those who answered yes, some immediate responses were offered. These included providing information on available resources, linking up with local family violence support services, and even, if needed, keeping them safe from harm while organising crisis help.

Over the course of the pilot, 30 practices across the NWMPHN catchment took the opportunity to do the training, carry out the quality improvement activities and embed the results into everyday operations.

Primary Care Pathways to Safety was one of 6 test projects around Australia funded through a $9.6 million allocation in the 2019–2020 Federal budget. This was known as the Improving Health System Responses to Family and Domestic Violence measure, supporting the implementation of the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2010–2022).

In its extensive assessment, published in late May 2023 and led by analyst Dr Sallie Anne Newell, the Sax Institute concluded:

“The Domestic and Family Violence pilot … was overwhelmingly perceived as valued, useful, important and needed, with evidence it is contributing towards an improved support experience and outcomes for DFV victim-survivors.

“Participating general practices provided very positive feedback about the various DFV pilot activities they had engaged with, considering them timely, of high quality, relevant for their work role and having improved their capacity and confidence to recognise and respond to DFV in a variety of ways.”

A fresh federal budget allocation will now see Primary Care Pathways to Safety – no longer in pilot phase – rolled out to another 30 practices in the NWMPHN region. Expressions of interest will be invited later in the year and the available places are expected to fill quickly.

“In Victoria, intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44,” said Jessica Holman, Acting Director of Primary Health Care Improvement at NWMPHN.

“General practitioners and other primary health services are well placed to respond to family violence because they see victim-survivors, perpetrators, and their children. Studies indicate that women are twice as likely to disclose family violence if asked by their GP or other member of a general practice team. This project helps that process, and improves the quality of care they are offered.

“Primary Care Pathways to Safety is a powerful example of how working with and upskilling in the primary health care sector can produce very real benefits for people at risk of harm. We are so proud of this program – and of the doctors, nurses, practice managers and reception staff who have already taken part.”

More information about Primary Care Pathways to Safety can be found here.

A video exploring how the program works at one of the participating practices – IPC Health in Deer Park – can be found here.

The Sax Institute evaluation can be found here.