21. Challenging Situations

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Challenging Situations

Edited by George Jelinek

21.1 Death and dying

William Lukin and Bryan G Walpole


For most people, the normal expectations are that they will live a full life, that parents will pre-decease their children and that the dying person will be able to deal with any unfinished business and die surrounded by loved ones, as portrayed in the media. There is an expectation that death will be natural, peaceful and, for the majority, pain free. In marked contrast to such expectations is the unexpected death of a loved one at an emergency department (ED) where sudden unexpected and violent death is not uncommon.

Death and dying patients are an inevitable part of emergency medicine practice. In 2011/12, 1956 people died in emergency departments in Australia and a further 5477 were pronounced dead on arrival [1]. These deaths can be either be sudden and unexpected or the natural evolution of a dying process. Sudden unexpected death from trauma or rapid overwhelming disease processes is somewhat unique to emergency medicine and management of patients and families in this situation is something with which all emergency physicians must be familiar. The management of the patient dying from a life-limiting illness in the emergency department needs a different skillset to unexpected death but is just as important. For some, facing a surviving family or counselling a dying patient may symbolize failure in the battle against disease; however, it is a privilege and, done correctly, can be an extremely fulfilling part of emergency medicine practice. In emergency medicine, one does not have the benefit of a long-standing doctor–patient relationship. The support and mutual understanding that are the cornerstones of family practice are missing and so rapport must be forged in the heat of the moment. Families need space and time to come to grips with death, but both are limited in the ED. Access block and overcrowding should not preclude sensitive, empathetic grief management.

To follow the strain and pace of a difficult resuscitation with the grace and emotional energy required to care for a family requires considerable effort. Emergency physicians also have a duty of care to the survivors who deserve compassion as much as the recently deceased.

Similarly, management of the patient dying from a life-limiting illness can be a complex and challenging task. Patients and their families in this setting attend emergency departments for many reasons including fear, unrelieved symptomatology and the inability to access appropriate services. This is not always a failure of the system; sometimes an emergency department is the only place that can deliver the care they require. ED clinicians should have sufficient knowledge of local processes to enable advocacy roles for these patients with special needs and foster partnerships with local care providers to facilitate transition into other services.

The 12 principles of a good death were outlined in an editorial in 2000 (Box 21.1.1) [2]. These apply equally to unexpected and expected deaths. Death in an emergency department of necessity violates some or all of these principles. Emergency physicians should apply these to practice as best they can within the constraints of a busy, crowded emergency department.

Quality management of grief states can prevent significant morbidity, as pathological or unresolved grief can lead to later problems with physical and mental health.

The death process

Diagnosing dying

Death does not occur at a finite moment. Cardiac death, cerebral death, brainstem death and cellular death form a continuum over minutes or hours. Considerable effort has gone into diagnosing death. Legal definitions for diagnosing brain death, cardiac death and the staff involved are outlined in the relevant transplantation and organ donation acts in various jurisdictions. This has been done largely to facilitate organ transplantation.

There is a paucity of research in the area of diagnosis of the dying process and the part emergency physicians can play in this. Diagnosing dying is a skill best exemplified by specialists in palliative care. It can be hard to estimate and comes with experience. Making this diagnosis can enable the emergency physician to engage patients on a dying trajectory and allow them to take control and plan for the time they have remaining (see Chapter 21.6).

Managing the dying process

When the point of dying is reached, the practitioner needs to be acutely aware of the needs of the dying person. While physical needs, such as analgesia, are relatively easily met, other domains can easily be ignored.

For patients whose death is inevitable or not unexpected, a protocol, such as the Liverpool care of the dying pathway, can be instituted in the emergency department [3]. This tool focuses team care on the needs of the dying patient and avoids unnecessary interventions. The intent is to provide hospice level care in other clinical settings. At this point, the principles of a good death can act as an aspirational target as clinicians attempt to rationalize the care provided to patients.

A large family may need significant space, which can interfere with the routine work of the ED so a private room should be available. Then all can pay special attention to physical comfort, symptom management, privacy and the confidentiality of the patient and family.


Families should be encouraged to be present during resuscitation efforts. A senior support person should be available for the family if at all possible during this time. If the outcome is hopeless, family members can be encouraged to be involved in decision making around abandoning resuscitation. After death, families should be encouraged to view, touch and talk to the deceased. It is well recognized that this improves the grieving process. They will remember these moments for the rest of their lives. Having participated in the resuscitation and in the decision to stop can be helpful

Initiation of the grieving process

Quality management of grief states can prevent significant morbidity, as pathological or unresolved grief can lead to later problems with physical and mental health. Emergency physicians have a duty of care to the survivors to play their part in the initiation of family grief.

Grief is not like an illness, to be fought and cured as so often is the case in Western medicine. Generalizations can be made about human behavioural tendencies and time lines can be drawn for predicted recovery, but each person’s grieving process is unique. Some people never get better and nobody survives grief unchanged.

All relatives need time to receive the clear message of death, which they may need to be given again and again. Some need to make meaning of the event and the clinical art of managing perceptions is paramount. For the families of the deceased, this time will be recalled with unrivalled clarity. It is a great privilege to be part of those memories and it carries the responsibility to manage the family in keeping with best practice principles for the initiation of grieving.

Breaking bad news

The interview with the family of the recently deceased can be more difficult than the resuscitation. Handled with sensitivity, however, it can be a positive start to successful grieving and recovery.

The room in which such information is given should be private and comfortable and contain a telephone. Tea, coffee, iced water and simple food should be readily available. If refreshments arrive soon after the news has been broken, this can help diffuse tension. The offering of food is a time-honoured expression of warmth and comfort and facilitates communication and the grieving process.

The emergency physician should greet the family by name, confirm the relationship of each with the patient and shake hands or touch them gently. All parties should be seated and a helpful way to start is to ask the family members what they know. They may have been present at the scene, where CPR was under way, or have come to hospital independently with no preconceived ideas. A simple unambiguous summary of events should be given. This often needs to be repeated and the family members given time to ask questions.

It is important to use the word ‘dead’ or ‘died’; euphemisms such as ‘passed away’, ‘she’s gone’ and ‘departed this life’ are unclear messages that can mislead. The grieving process cannot start until there is acknowledgement of death. A truthful explanation can be comforting. There is no curriculum for teaching this type of interaction. Junior staff should be able to be present when a more senior staff member is conducting these discussions to facilitate role modelling. Over time, junior staff should be encouraged to facilitate these discussions in the presence of more senior mentors.


Requests for tranquillizers can come from survivors or a third party, who may ask that the bereaved be given sedation. It is now recognized that the use of anxiolytic medication is contraindicated in early grieving. This must be carefully explained to families when it is requested. It may be part of the management of morbid grief weeks or months later but has no place in early management. Anxiety, sadness and insomnia can be a natural part of early grief.


There is a range of responses to the information that a close relative has died. The mode of death can be a guide. Homicide can lead to great distress, along with suicide and unintended injury. Some common reactions are:

ent Disbelief: some will immediately deny the event, claiming that it must be somebody else or that they are dreaming. Reinforcement is required.

ent Numbness: some sit mute, appearing not to take in the information. They need time to absorb it.

ent Expressive: a sudden flood of tears or loud cries with upsetting or disturbing noises should be allowed to run its course. Such acknowledgement can be a positive response.

ent Guilt: particularly with homicide and suicide, such news is often followed by ‘if only’ or ‘why couldn’t I have?’ Here, gentle repeated reassurance and discussion can be important. These people are at risk of pathological grief reactions and can be helped by seeing the body and talking to it.

ent Displacement activity: an immediate call to inform relatives, organize the funeral and discuss family matters is a poor prognostic sign. These people are often seen as mature, rational and born organizers, but they are at risk of pathological grief reactions months later. They will need careful follow up to see that they grieve eventually.

Offers of follow up can be made at this time. If the family members have unresolved questions they need a contact in the emergency department to arrange further meetings if required.

Viewing the body

Relatives and their invited friends should be encouraged to view the body. By seeing the body, by feeling and touching, the grieving process, separation and rebuilding can start. People should be encouraged to speak, touch, kiss, stroke, caress, even to argue, negotiate and cajole in private for as long as they wish. This facilitates natural grieving. The presence of a bereavement or viewing room can make this process much easier as, particularly with children, visiting can go on for several hours. A hospital morgue may be used, some have a purpose-built facility and appropriate staff support. Relatives should be informed of the necessity for police involvement if the matter has been referred to the coroner.

Cultural issues

Various ethnic and religious groups have differing practices for the handling and disposal of bodies. Emergency physicians should be able to manage different family requests in a sensitive manner while bearing in mind local statutory obligations.

For Australians of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island descent, cultural practices and beliefs vary from region to region and families will guide practitioners. In larger hospitals, Aboriginal liaison services can help.

Death certificates

Doctors managing deaths in the ED must understand and have a sound knowledge of reporting requirements for the coroner’s court (see Chapter 25.2 The coroner). Any death suspected to be not entirely from natural causes or where the cause is unknown requires reporting. Local regulations stipulate the circumstances under which a death certificate may be issued and by whom. For instance, in some states, it is not necessary for the issuer to have seen the person while alive. Coroner’s courts are proactive in assisting medical practitioners to complete certificates where possible.

Organ donation

A thorough knowledge of local definitions is crucial for the emergency physician to participate in efforts to improve organ transplantation rates (see Chapter 21.7). Relatives can ask later why donation was not suggested and some really appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the welfare of others. All Australian states have access to professional transplant coordinators to facilitate the process once permission has been obtained.

Bereavement counselling

Most hospitals have qualified practitioners to support the recently bereaved. Referral should be arranged prior to departure if counsellors have not already made contact. Ministers of religion are trained in grief counselling and are usually available after hours. People can feel unprepared to ask for them and it is not necessary for the deceased to have had any religious affiliation to make use of such counsellors. The general practitioner is also a useful resource and should always be informed promptly of the death of a practice patient. Social workers are expert in grief counselling and many funeral companies and coroner’s offices now provide counselling services.

Subsequent issues

Permission to leave

Recently bereaved people are sometimes confused, frightened, stunned and at a loss as to what to do next. When forensic issues (identification and statements) and viewing have been completed, they can be given the dead person’s possessions and politely given permission to leave the hospital. ‘There is nothing more you can do’ or ‘Can I phone someone or get a taxi to take you home?’ may be usefully offered.

Information about contacting a funeral office to arrange for collection of the death certificate and the body and to discuss burial rites should be in an explanatory leaflet, readily available.

Professional issues

One of the important aspects of looking after survivors is caring for the carers, who are often overlooked. Patient death has been reported to lead to physical and emotional symptoms in emergency medicine practioners [4]. There is no evidence that psychological debriefing prevents or ameliorates post-traumatic stress disorder and it may cause harm to some. Often, after an unsuccessful resuscitation, professionals need to talk about the events within the team environment. This should be done to foster reflective practice around teamwork in crisis situations. It is uncertain whether this improves psychological outcome. There is, however, a distinct propensity for those who spend their lives among misery to become cynical and full of black humour. The cultural norms of emergency medicine can become so integrated into personal values that the physician does not even recognize their presence. We should regularly assess our own emotional fatigue and, if there is a significant divergence between our personal values and career activities, we may be motivated to seek support from a trusted source. This area awaits further research.


1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: Australian hospital statistics 2011–12: emergency department care<http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10737423039>.

2. Smith R. A good death. Br Med J. 2000;320:129–130.

3. Marie Curie Palliative Care Institute. Liverpool care pathway for the dying patient.<http://www.liv.ac.uk/mcpcil/liverpool-care-pathway>[Accessed Jan. 2013].

4. Strote J, Schroeder E, et al. Academic emergency physicians’ experiences with patient death. Acad Emerg Med. 2011;18:255–260.

Further reading

1. Carey G, Sorensen R, eds. The penguin book of death. Melbourne: Penguin Books, Melbourne University Press; 1997.

2. Shears R. Emergency physicians’ role in end-of-life care. Emerg Med Clin N Am. 1999;17:2.

21.2 Sexual assault

Ian Knox and Roslyn Crampton


Sexual assault is defined as an act of a sexual nature carried out against a person’s will. Following sexual assault, a patient presenting should first be evaluated for acute traumatic physical injuries and drug or alcohol intoxication. The victim should be offered prophylaxis for sexually transmitted infection (STI) and pregnancy as appropriate. If required to collect forensic evidence to assist in any police investigation, consent is obtained for recording the victim’s account of the assault, the findings on physical examination and for the collection of forensic material. Follow-up medical care and psychological support should be arranged prior to safe discharge.


Every jurisdiction in Australia has its own legislation and definitions used to describe all types of sexual offences. Sexual assault has a number of elements. It is an act of a sexual nature that is carried out against the will of the victim. Consent is the crucial issue. The victim does not give consent, is intimidated to consent, or is legally incapable of giving consent because of youth or incapacity. It includes attempts to force the victim into sexual activity and includes rape (intentional penile penetration of the vagina, including the vulva), attempted rape, aggravated sexual assault (assault with a weapon or infliction of injury), indecent assault (oral or anal intercourse), penetration by objects and forced sexual activity that did not result in penetration. Penetration is not an essential element to sexual assault.

The absence of physical resistance by the victim is not regarded as consent. Consent by intimidation or coercive conduct without physical threat is also a criminal act. Consent requires free agreement and a person may be incapable of consenting because of the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Sexual assault by a carer upon a child is termed sexual abuse. This is sexual activity in which consent is not at issue and involves the child in sexual activity that is either beyond the child’s understanding or contrary to accepted community standards. There are legal definitions regarding age, generally in the order of 15–17 years depending on the jurisdiction. Sexual violence involving a disabled person may also be either abuse or assault depending on the nature of the act or the circumstances of the victim.


Global statistics indicate at least one in five women experiences rape or attempted rape during her lifetime [1]. Crime statistics are limited; it is estimated, for example, in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey 2005 that only 19% women who were sexually assaulted reported the incident to police [2]. Victims hesitate to report because of humiliation, fear of retribution, fear they will not be believed, self-blame and lack of understanding of the criminal justice system.

In this survey, based on sampling the Australian population of women, 5.8% (443 800) experienced violence in the previous 12 months, including 1.3% experiencing sexual assault. Males experienced sexual assault less frequently at 0.6%. For females, only 22% were assaulted by a stranger, 21% by a previous partner, 39% by a family member or friend and 32% by another known person. Stranger assaults were more common in males (33%). An estimated 17% of women had experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 versus 4.8% of men.

Sexual assault is more common in vulnerable populations. Individuals in psychiatric facilities may be targeted and their report may not be believed as may occur with intellectually or physically disabled persons with diminished ability to detect or escape from such danger. Homeless women with serious mental illness have a very high lifetime risk for this violent victimization. Young adult male prisoners are also at risk [3].

Barriers to care

The ABS study [4] found that once an incident of sexual assault has been reported to the police, one in four cases result in the perpetrator being charged, but the conviction rate is low with less than 50% of defendants found guilty. The study showed 12.5% of women also did not report the assault to the police because of shame and embarrassment. Emergency physicians and nurses need to be aware of these attitudes that the victim and they themselves may have when approaching the sexual assault victim. A non-judgemental, accepting stance by care providers is essential. The victim has enough self-doubt without healthcare providers adding to that. It is not the health professional’s role to make a judgement as to whether the rape occurred; the courts will decide this. False allegations of rape are made, but given the perceived penalties associated with reporting a rape, such a person is likely to be disturbed and in need of help in any event.

The role of the doctor in attending to victims of sexual assault who have consented to forensic examination and evidence collection is not the usual model of a therapeutic relationship. There is a dual obligation, as it is recognized that they have both a therapeutic role and a duty to the court to provide completely objective expertise in collecting evidence and interpreting the findings on examination to a court of law, where the impartiality of experts is key to their duty.


Victims who experience sexual assault may have experienced a loss of control and feel in danger. For the person to regain control, every step of the process must be explained and consent gained. Consent must be obtained for the forensic examination and evidence collection and for the release of the information to the police. Consent must be informed, specific and freely given. The consent must be witnessed. The capacity of the victim to give consent has to be carefully assessed. The mental competence to understand the information can be impaired, for example, by drugs or alcohol and mental state should be first tested. Certain patients are bound by formal legal requirements, which vary in each jurisdiction, for consent or responsibility for medical treatment. These include intellectually disabled persons, psychiatric patients under involuntary admission and children under custody orders or under the care of the state.

The evidence collected under this consent must be accurately labelled and secured.

Chain of evidence

Once a forensic specimen has been collected from its origin, all aspects of its existence must be recorded. All persons coming into custody of the specimen must be identified and the details of all transfers of custody and maintained security of the material must be recorded. A forensic register must be maintained for all items in a dedicated and secure storage facility.

Medical evaluation of the victim

The medical, forensic and psychological needs of a complainant depend on the nature and timing of the assault. The immediate medical needs are paramount. Medical care for victims of sexual assault includes consideration of physical injury, toxicological issues and the risks of acquiring an infection or pregnancy.

Evaluation of acute traumatic injuries is the first priority. The literature typically describes about half the victims having some sort of physical injury [5], although less than 5% of victims require admission to hospital for treatment. An analysis of over 1000 cases in the USA [6] revealed that physical examination showed evidence of general body trauma in 64% of victims. Genital trauma was noted in 52%, while 20% had no injuries documented. An Australian study confirmed non-genital injuries in 46% of women and genital injury in only 22% [7]. These findings indicate that many sexual assault victims may not have either general or genital trauma on examination and this absence does not mean that an assault did not occur.

Potentially life-threatening injuries may include attempted strangulation, blunt traumatic injury to the head or face and torso and penetrating injuries, which may be occult. These should be fully evaluated prior to referring for forensic processes.

A study from Florida found that one in 1500 sexual assaults resulted in the death of the victim, with asphyxiation being the most common cause of death. While there has been no comparable Australian study, the Australian Institute of Criminology reports that there were 288 homicides committed in Australia in 2003 and a sexual assault was the precipitating factor in nine [8].

Non-fatal strangulation is an important risk factor for homicide of women [9]. Of 300 survivors of strangulation reported from the San Diego City attorney’s office [10], 150 had no visible markings. Examination findings, where present, can include ligature abrasions, finger tip bruising from the assailant’s grasp and curvilinear abrasions caused by finger nail markings, occurring singly or in sets, caused by the victim’s struggle to pry the grasp from her neck. Subconjunctival haemorrhage and petechial haemorrhages in the skin may be identified.

Strangulation is a form of asphyxia characterized by closure of the blood vessels or air passages of the neck as a result of external pressure usually by hands (throttling) or ligature strangulation (garrotting). External injury may appear trivial but is a marker of potentially significant sequelae that can develop in surviving victims, both acute and delayed.

Compression of the airway can lead to laryngeal injuries including fractures, soft-tissue swelling and mucosal oedema with potential development of airway compromise. Significant gulping of air together with vomiting and an episode of loss of consciousness may precipitate aspiration. Hypoxic cerebral damage depends on the duration of hypoxia and most victims either die or survive without obvious brain damage, but post-hypoxic encephalopathy has been reported. Carotid artery intimal dissection with subsequent thrombus formation has also been reported. This may present as a delayed focal deficit from subsequent stroke up to 2 weeks after the incident [11]. Attempted strangulation warrants a high index of suspicion to rule out injuries and a period of observation may be required.

Penetration with foreign bodies can cause overt or occult pelvic injury. Further investigation or operative intervention may be necessary.

Forensic history, examination and evidence collection

The forensic examination is carried out for the purpose of obtaining evidence of the rape or assault that could be used in a prosecution. The aim is to record the victim’s report of the assault and collect and record evidence related to this report and collect DNA. Specific consent should be sought before this examination is undertaken, as therapeutic benefit is not intended. Specific consent must be additionally obtained to turn over the specimens to the police. Police services produce kits that give a comprehensive guide to the history and examination including body charts required for various aspects of the prosecution. Emergency departments should have access to a multidisciplinary team with a clinician trained in such collection.

Physical examination recorded for the forensic record must include every wound detected on meticulous forensic examination. Injury could have been inflicted by the assailant or in the victim’s attempted defence or escape; in the interpretation of the injury, even minor wounds that may not require treatment take on key forensic significance. Physical examination requires a sympathetic but professional and methodical approach of every body surface as with the collection of relevant forensic samples. Every injury must be carefully recorded on a body chart. Height and weight is required for interpretation of toxicological results.

Standard nomenclature including lacerations, abrasions and bruises should be used in wound description. Correct anatomical sites must be recorded and labelled in genital examination. Evidence collection kits provided in each jurisdiction contain anatomical body charts for recording all body areas, which must be assessed for evidence of injury including the ears, mouth and throat.

A wound is a disruption in the continuity of tissues produced by physical injury. Description of the physical characteristics of a wound includes the site, size, shape and depth of the wound as well as the appearance of the wound edges and adjacent tissue, the contents of the wound and whether there is evidence of healing.

An abrasion is a superficial injury of the skin caused by pressure and movement applied simultaneously. Abrasions can be of importance in the forensic context, as they may identify direction, as with friction abrasions, or patterns of the causative object as with imprint abrasions or they may contain embedded trace materials.

A bruise is an area of haemorrhage within or beneath the skin due to blunt trauma. This is also known as a haematoma, contusion or haemorrhage. The discoloration is caused by blood leaking from damaged blood vessels. The age of a bruise cannot be determined by its colour as this can undergo considerable variation. It takes more than 18 hours to develop any yellow discoloration [12]. Bruises may not occur at the site of the trauma and their size does not always correlate with the applied force; they may be altered by coincident conditions, such as anticoagulant therapy.

A laceration is a ragged or irregular tear in the skin, subcutaneous tissue or organs resulting from blunt force. Lacerations can be distinguished by irregular or crushed margins, bands of intact tissue forming bridges across the wound and intact structures, such as tendons, within the wound. The term laceration is often misused to describe an incised wound. An incised wound is an injury produced by sharp-edged objects. The edges of incised wounds are sharply defined and blood loss may be extensive as the vessels are divided rather than crushed. The correct classification of injuries can assist in determining the mechanism of injury or the object or weapon that caused the injury.

Patterns of injury may be observed. Blows to the head, face and neck may cause bruising, lacerations and fractures and include hyphaemas, dental trauma and tympanic membrane perforation. Fingertip bruising and imprint bruising may be evident. Defensive responses may show warding off injuries to the hands, for example, incised wounds to the palm or bruising on extensor surfaces of the arms. Fingertip bruising can be present on the medial thighs. Bite marks may be seen on breast or buttocks. Abrasions from contact with unshaven skin may be detected. Postmenopausal women are significantly more likely to need surgical management and repair of genital injuries than are younger women [13].

Examination of the genitalia includes inner thighs, buttocks and anus. Common locations for genital injuries include tears or abrasions of the posterior fourchette (where the two labia meet posteriorly), abrasion or bruising of the labia minora and fossa navicularis (directly anterior to the fourchette) and bruising or tears of the hymen. After relevant forensic specimens have been collected, it may be necessary to use a Foley catheter to tease out any folds in hymenal tissue to facilitate the inspection of hymenal injury. An examination of the vagina and cervix can then be completed using a speculum, any evidence of injury recorded and any bleeding or discharge recorded with the source identified. Perianal injury may need a moistened swab to tease out folds for inspection and proctoscopy may be required for inspection as appropriate.

Despite the relatively low frequency of obvious injury, the documentation of such injuries increases the chance of successful prosecution [14]. Photography must have the specific consent of the victim and is best performed by an experienced practitioner and the secure storage of images must be ensured.

Collection of forensic specimens

The perpetrator may have left evidence on the victim. Sampling from sites of contact between the victim and assailant is the basis of evidence collection. Specimens collected are guided by the circumstances. Standardized evidence collection kits used in each jurisdiction contain both forms of swabs and slides appropriate to obtain trace evidence of saliva, semen, blood and skin-to-skin contact. Samples should be sampled, allowed to dry, sealed and packaged with all contents carefully labelled and the chain of evidence maintained. Slides should be made where the presence of semen is suspected.

Any sample collected from the victim that contains cellular material from the victim’s assailant can be used for DNA testing. This includes spermatozoa, semen if it contains cells or blood or tissue from under fingernails, which should be clipped. DNA evidence left on or in the body of a victim, particularly in moist areas, degrades quickly over 2–10 days. The forensic assessment should thus be made as soon as possible. Underpants and panty liners worn during or after the assault may be contaminated with forensic material and should be retained. As DNA degrades quickly if moist, with the overgrowth of organisms, underclothes should be stored in paper not plastic bags.

Proof of sexual contact is established by the detection of spermatozoa or semen either on or within the victim or on the victim’s clothes. The likelihood of detecting spermatozoa or semen from the vagina is generally very low by 72 hours. However, under some circumstances, spermatozoa may persist for days longer and can be obtained from the endocervical os or cervix. The detection of sperm or semen from the rectum or mouth is possible but very dependent on the actions of the victim after the assault, which should be recorded. The presence of DNA in deposited saliva may give a positive result for up to 2 days. Skin swabs for epithelial cells are generally unhelpful after 12 hours.

Care must be taken when the victim undresses for the examination. Hair or clothes fibres from the offender or other traces from the crime scene may have adhered to the body or clothes of the victim. The victim should undress standing over a drop sheet, which should then be included in a bag into which clothes are placed. This becomes part of the physical evidence.

The most accurate laboratory method currently available to identify the assailant is DNA testing. The chance of incorrectly identifying an alleged assailant as the source of DNA material is very small. However, the risk of contamination of the evidence samples with that of DNA belonging to other individuals is significant and has resulted in wrongful incarceration [15]. Accordingly, forensic collection and analysis techniques are under increasing scrutiny by the legal system and sources of contamination must be excluded. All measures to minimize DNA cross-contamination in the clinical setting, including the consistent use of gloves, gowns, mask and drapes and in the techniques of collection must be taken and recorded.

Toxicological issues

Drugs may be administered to the victim in order to facilitate sexual assault. The commonest drug is alcohol, but large numbers of drugs, including flunitrazepam and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), have been implicated and the victim may be unaware or have no memory of events surrounding the assault. Self-reported alcohol consumption immediately prior to assaults is very common, including up to 77% of those reporting drug-facilitated sexual assault [16] and this study revealed levels in 37% of those reporting with an average blood alcohol concentration of 0.11% at the time of examination. This is likely to have had a significant impact on conscious state and the ability to consent at the time of assault and may impair the victim’s subsequent recall of events. The victim is at additional risk, particularly where there is a combination with prescription or recreational drugs. Covert administration of drugs in the setting of sexual assault appears uncommon in this Australian study. The interpretation of drug levels and their possible effects is difficult. In general, urine is the preferred specimen, although blood samples should be collected within 24 hours of the assault and these must be refrigerated prior to laboratory analysis.

Medical aftercare

The risk of genital infection after sexual assault

The risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) following rape is reported to be 4–56%, with infection reflecting those organisms that are locally prevalent. One study showed that with baseline testing, 43% of victims had evidence of pre-existing infection [17]. The finding of pre-existing infection is not admissible in court under Australian law. Most experts discourage testing for STIs in the emergency department unless symptomatic.

Baseline screening [18] for the following infections is recommended in follow up:

While the risk of acquiring an infection is difficult to define, antibiotic prophylaxis is not generally recommended for the victim unless the person committing the assault is known to be suffering from an STI, is at high risk for having an STI or it is thought unlikely to return for follow up. Poor follow-up rates are the norm and all patients should be offered prophylaxis in the emergency department if urgent follow up cannot be ensured. Intramuscular ceftriaxone 250 mg together with 1 g azithromycin orally plus either metronidazole 2 g or tinidazole 2 g as a single dose is the suggested antibiotic regimen [19].

Given the low prevalence of syphilis in the general community, it is reasonable not to give benzathine penicillin routinely but to have syphilis serology performed at 3 months, depending on the circumstances and whether follow up can be assured. Chlamydia trichomatis is the most common notifiable sexually transmitted infection in Australia. If the victim has a pre-existent infection and receives treatment with azithromycin without follow up or contact tracing there is a risk of re-infection and increased risk of serious morbidity, including infertility.

Hepatitis B virus can be transmitted by sexual intercourse but the risk of transmission is undefined. By comparison, the risk of infection following a percutaneous needle stick from an HBAg-positive individual to an HBAb-negative recipient is 5–43% [20]. Prophylaxis with hepatitis B vaccine 1 mL IM is indicated. HBV vaccination and hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) (400 IU IM) should be available where the assailant is either known to be HBV positive or the woman is considered to be particularly at risk of infection. Hepatitis B vaccination without HBIG is highly effective in preventing HBV infection in sexual contacts of persons who have chronic HBV infection. Persons exposed to an assailant with acute HBV infection additionally require HBIG which prevents 75% of such infections [21]. Unless victims have a reliable vaccination history and serological conversion, the full hepatitis B course should be initiated, even when the completion of the vaccine series cannot be ensured [22]. Hepatitis C is not efficiently transmitted sexually.

It is likely that the victim will be concerned about HIV or will become concerned at a later date. The offer of HIV testing should be made accompanied by the usual full explanation and written consent needs to be obtained if the test is done. HIV seroconversion has occurred in persons whose only known risk factor was sexual assault, although the frequency of this occurrence is thought to be low [22]

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