Tech seeks to bring visibility to sexual assault, harassment with #metoo

Rebecca Vesely

About Rebecca Vesely

Rebecca Vesely is AHCJ's topic leader on health information technology and a freelance writer. She has written about health, science and medicine for AFP, the Bay Area News Group, Modern Healthcare, Wired, Scientific American online and many other news outlets.

If you have been on Facebook or Twitter over the past few days you’ve likely seen or even participated in the “me too” campaign that is blowing up on social media.

It began after the New York Times and the New Yorker published bombshell articles on numerous sexual assault and harassment complaints against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:

Since that Oct. 15 tweet, thousands of women have added the simple phrase “me too” to their social media timelines.

Technology – here in the form of social media – is providing an immediate outlet and amplification of a major social problem. #Metoo shows men and women the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment in our society.

So let’s get to what other ways beyond social media that technology can be a tool to expose sexual assault, abuse and harassment and hold perpetrators accountable.

One example is the pioneering nonprofit Callisto. Founded by Jess Ladd, Callisto is an online platform that allows survivors of sexual assault to securely record and keep their recollections after an attack. The record can be saved and/or shared with college campus officials or law enforcement. Importantly, the record can be matched if another survivor names the same perpetrator, establishing patterns of repeat offenders.

Less than 10 percent of survivors report their assault, and those who do wait on average 11 months to report it, according to Ladd. Matching records helps identify perpetrators, which is important because up to 90 percent of assaults are committed by repeat offenders, according to Callisto.

To date, Callisto has partnered with 16 colleges across the country to make the service available to students. Ladd aims to expand that number. You can watch her TED talk here.

Electronic health records could also provide support to survivors in both the short and long term. In 2013, the U.S. Preventive Task Force recommended that physicians screen female patients for intimate partner violence. At some health systems and medical groups, providers routinely ask their patients “How are things at home?” This open-ended, benign question has been shown to foster trust and meaningful conversation. Preserving history of sexual assault and trauma in EHRs can help providers address long-term mental health and physical effects – as long as patients are in control of their medical histories and those records are secure.

Technology can also help identify victims of sexual violence who are reluctant to speak out. Some health systems have implemented EHR-based screening programs to identify patients who are potential victims of human trafficking. At one hospital emergency department, a trafficking risk assessment tool was embedded in the EHR, and issued a silent alert to the attending nurse or physician if the patient screened positive for identified risk factors. As a result of this intervention, one patient was identified as a victim of human trafficking and others were identified as victims of abuse, according to published results of the trial. And 75 percent of clinicians who participated in the pilot said it increased their competence level of identifying signs of trafficking and abuse.

The #metoo campaign could be just another passing Internet meme. But it is an important example of how technology is shaping our understanding of sexual assault and harassment – hopefully for the better.

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