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Theses Doctoral

Identifying a History of Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse in Adolescents and Young Adults and Understanding its Impact on Perceived Health and Health Care Utilization

Diaz, Angela

Childhood abuse, whether physical or sexual, is a major public health issue. The most recent United States data from Child Protective Services (CPS) show that in 2013 there were 3.5 million referrals of child maltreatment involving 6.4 million children. Out of these cases, 18% were for physical abuse and 9% were for sexual abuse. However, researchers argue that CPS data grossly underestimate the prevalence of childhood abuse as most childhood abuse goes unreported. Indeed, to date, the true prevalence of childhood abuse remains unknown as research has been hampered by inconsistent definitions of abuse and wide variation in methodologies including measures for its identification and modes of administration of these measures.
Although a health care visit presents an opportunity to identify a childhood abuse history, health care providers frequently fail to ask about it. The reasons doctors give for not asking about abuse include lack of training, not knowing how to ask, and lack of familiarity with practical methods for screening that can be used in primary care settings. There is little to no research on effective means for identifying childhood abuse histories, especially in the adolescent and young adult population, or on how different modes of administration of screens to identify childhood abuse compare to each other. The net result is that most childhood physical and sexual abuse is never identified and many victims do not get the needed services to help them heal.
When unaddressed, childhood abuse has negative impacts on victims’ health and wellbeing over the life course. Prior studies of adults show that when compared with non-victims of abuse, victims tend to perceive their health as poorer and utilize more health care services including emergency room and urgent outpatient care. These studies also suggest that adult victims use less routine and preventive care than non-victims.
Only two studies, conducted among widely different adolescent populations, have examined how adolescent victims perceive their health. Similarly, limited evidence examining perception of health is available for young adults. These studies found that victims perceive their health as poorer than non-victims.
There have been no adolescent-specific studies of how victimization impacts adolescents’ utilization of health care. One study includes participants ages 15 to 98 years and only two studies focusing on this issue in samples primarily of young adults attending college have been published. These studies found that victims utilize more health care than non-victims.
Therefore, we lack a sufficient body of evidence to come to clear conclusions of how childhood abuse affects self-perceived health in adolescents and young adults. The general lack of evidence about both how childhood abuse impacts perception of health and utilization of health care in adolescents and young adults indicates a need for further study.
Given that little is known about how to best identify an abuse history in adolescents and young adults and the impact of abuse on perception of health and utilization of health care, this dissertation pursued three aims: (1) to review the literature comparing modes of administration of screens to identify adolescent and young adult victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse; (2) to investigate how different modes of administration of screens to identify adolescent and young adult victims of childhood physical abuse within a primary care health setting compare to each other, and; (3) to examine the association of a history of childhood abuse (defined as none, physical only, and sexual with or without physical) with perceived health status and the health care utilization patterns among adolescents and young adults.
For aim 1, a comprehensive literature review was conducted via PubMed of studies, published between January 1st, 1994 and December 31st, 2014 that compared modes of administration of screens to identify a history of childhood physical and sexual abuse in adolescents and young adults. Only one study was found. This study compared paper and pencil questionnaire, computer assisted survey, and face to face structured interview in the identification of childhood physical and sexual abuse among young adults in a college setting. No significant difference in the proportion of childhood physical abuse or childhood sexual abuse was identified by mode of administration. The identification through this search of only one study – which was conducted among college students, with no studies done among adolescents – shows a significant gap in our knowledge regarding this issue. Given that understanding how to identify childhood abuse is a critical issue, this gap is disturbing and underscores the need for studies of identification of childhood abuse to be a research priority.
For aim 2, a sample of participants, ages 12-24 years, receiving health services at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City were randomized to one of four modes of administration to identify a history of childhood physical abuse. The four modes of administration of screens to identify childhood abuse were paper and pencil screen, Audio Computer Assisted Self Interview screen (ACASI), face to face structured screen and face to face unstructured interview. The full sample also completed measures to assess demographic characteristics and to screen for depression symptoms.
Of the sample, 44.5% of the participants disclosed childhood physical abuse. There was a statistically significant difference in the proportion of childhood physical abuse identified according to mode of administration: face to face unstructured interview identified the highest proportion of childhood physical abuse victims, followed by face to face structured screen. After adjusting for age, gender, race/ethnicity, depression, living arrangement and last grade completed, the odds of identifying physical abuse was 1.6 (95%CI: 1.0, 2.7) and 4.5 (95%CI: 2.6, 7.8) greater for face to face structured screen and for face to face unstructured interview, respectively as compared to paper and pencil screen. ACASI and paper and pencil were similar to each other but inferior to the face to face methods.
For aim 3, in addition to what was measured for aim 2, the sample completed measures on a history of childhood sexual abuse and perceived health and health care utilization. The sample was then categorized into three groups: no abuse, physical abuse only, and sexual abuse with or without physical abuse. The association of childhood abuse status with perceived health and health care utilization were examined. There was no statistical significant association between a history of childhood abuse status and perceived health. However, the odds of reporting a fair/poor perception of health among those reporting childhood abuse were at least 40% lower regardless of whether the abuse was physical (OR: 0.60; 95%CI: 0.3,1.2) or sexual (OR: 0.50; 95%CI: 0.2,1.1). No significant association was found between childhood abuse status and health care utilization. However, the odds of victims reporting using urgent care only versus routine care only were at least 10% lower regardless of whether the abuse was physical (OR: 0.50; 95%CI: 0.3, 1.1) or sexual (OR: 0.90; 95%CI: 0.4,1.9). The odds of reporting using both urgent and routine care versus routine care only was similar between victims and non-victims for physical abuse (OR: 1.0; 95%CI: 0.6, 1.5) and was 30% higher for victims of sexual abuse (OR: 1.3; 95%CI: 0.8, 2.2).
The findings from the three aims examined identified significant gaps in our knowledge on childhood abuse among adolescents and young adults suggesting an urgent need for further research. While much research has focused on the impact of childhood abuse on health and well-being, aim 1 reveals that little is known about which mode of administration of screens to identify childhood abuse is most effective in the identification of childhood abuse in adolescent and young adults. Furthermore, we know even less about what modes of administration of screens might be practical in primary care settings, or what must be done to improve the level of screening for childhood abuse by physicians and other health care providers. Although the findings from aim 2 suggest that face to face modes of administration are most effective in screening for childhood physical abuse in primary care settings, further studies are needed to support these findings. In addition, there is a need for studies that examine what are the best methods to use to identify childhood sexual abuse in primary care settings.
The findings from aim 3 suggest that adolescents and young adults with a history of childhood physical and sexual abuse, receiving health care at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, do not perceive their health as worse than non-victims nor do they appear to utilize health care differently from non-victims. These findings contrast with results from prior studies of perceived health status and health care utilization among adolescents and young adult childhood abuse victims. Understanding how abuse impacts both the perception of health and health care utilization will be crucial in the development of interventions to identify and support adolescent and young adult victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Epidemiology
Thesis Advisors
Borrell, Luisa N.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 6, 2016
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