Sex assault victims urged to report, seek medical care

Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger
Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2015 file

About 1,400 men and women a year seek treatment for sexual assault, a new analysis of Minnesota hospital data shows.

That number remained relatively flat over the five-year reporting period between 2010 and 2014, a trend public health officials called disappointing.

Minnesota's top health official, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, expressed concern that sexual assault victims aren't seeking medical attention often enough, which inhibits the collection of complete and accurate data in Minnesota and the U.S.

The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that only about 1 in 5 sexual assault victims seeks medical care.

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"We want to highlight the benefits of seeking hospital treatment after a sexual assault," said Ehlinger, the state health commissioner. "With Minnesota not having a single source for sexual violence data, we look to hospitals to fill that gap."

Patients who seek medical care after an assault can get get medications to prevent infections, emergency contraception, injury treatment and counseling.

And the record of that visit provides important information to public health officials about the prevalence of sexual assault.

Reports of sexual assault are lower in greater Minnesota compared to the metro area. But public health officials do not think that's because there are fewer incidents of sexual assault there.

One barrier to reporting is access to care, especially in rural areas, said Jeanne Ronayne, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"When we see the data go down, we ask ... are the conditions such that victims feel they can come forward to authorities," Ronayne said, "or because that underreporting is getting more exacerbated?"

Sexual assault data are especially difficult to aggregate and analyze because there isn't a formal state or federal standard for survey questions or methodology. While some surveys may go in depth and ask about the perpetrator or how long ago the sexual assault occured, the questions may be entirely different on other surveys, said Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist at MDH.

Minnesota's sexual assault data, though limited, do show one positive trend for teens. While young people ages 15 to 24 still report the highest number of sexual assaults, the rate of hospital-treated patients aged 15 to 19 decreased significantly from 2010 to 2014.

Public health officials say it's possible that educational messages targeted toward that school-age group are having the intended effect on sexual violence rates among young people.

No other age group experienced a noticable drop in hospitalizations, which Ehlinger said "shows that we need to do more as a community to prevent sexual violence."