A group of University of California researchers have devised a training that teaches physicians how to broach the topic of firearms with patients. That curriculum, which is funded by nearly $4 million in state money, was released recently, and its creators say it’s crucial to preventing suicides, accidents and gun violence down the line.
The UC Firearm Violence Research Center, which launched with state funding in 2017, aims to investigate injuries and deaths from guns in California and nationally, and analyze the potential impact of firearm policies that could prevent those incidents. So far, their work has included reports on mass shootings, gun violence restraining orders, and suicide methods in urban versus rural areas.
Their new online curriculum aims to teach health care providers and medical students how to ask patients about firearms in the same way they might inquire about exercise, or smoking and drinking habits. It also includes a “Guns 101” section, a breakdown of California’s firearm laws and a list of clinical scenarios, such as what to do when a dementia patient says there’s a gun in a home or when a patient is in a domestic violence situation involving firearms.
Rocco Pallin, director of education for the group that wrote the curriculum, says pediatricians have a unique responsibility to counsel families about gun safety.
“Children are curious,” she said. “And if children can come across a loaded or unlocked firearm they are at risk of harming themselves or someone around them.”
She says counseling isn’t recommended in every case where a patient reports owning a firearm, only in circumstances where there’s a high risk of injury.
The idea of doctors discussing this topic has stirred controversy in the past. In 2018, the National Rifle Association posted on social media and told doctors to “stay in their lane” when it comes to gun policy. Physicians tweeted back “this IS my lane,” and shared stories of treating bullet wounds as proof that gun violence is a public health issue.
“Clinicians and physicians really pushed back and came out,” Pallin said. “Credible messengers said ‘this really is our issue, it really is a health issue, and we really do have a role.’. I think that’s really gained ground in the last two years, but there’s still work to do, of course.”
Some states have passed, or attempted to pass, physician “gag laws” that limit doctors’ ability to ask their patients about firearms. California providers are currently permitted to ask patients clinically relevant questions about guns.
The new curriculum from the UC Center was originally designed to be taught in person, including on medical school campuses. Pallin says they had to pivot to an all-digital format due to the pandemic, but that they still hope it will make its way to people on the path to medicine.
When counseling patients about firearm safety, the curriculum teaches doctors to suggest specific interventions, such as safe firearm storage, temporary firearm transfers, mental health holds and civil protective orders. In cases of gang violence, some hospitals have prevention programs designed to help patients avoid those activities.
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