Israel's Health Ministry Says Sexual Assault Isn't Necessarily a Medical Emergency

Activists fume, arguing that conditioning medical treatment on an initial consultation with a social worker denies victims immediate access to essential care

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demonstration against sexual violence in Jerusalem, August 21, 2020.
A demonstration against sexual violence in Jerusalem, August 21, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A sexual assault is not a medical emergency, the Health Ministry asserted this week in response to a request that hospitals grant victims emergency medical treatment by phone, without first requiring a consultation with a social worker.

In her response to the request, Dr. Vered Ezra of the ministry’s medical division, wrote, “A sexual assault is a harsh, traumatic event with psychological and physical ramifications, but it doesn’t necessarily meet the definition of a medical emergency under the Patients’ Rights Law. In particular, it’s hard to argue that this is a medical emergency as defined by law when the victim isn’t even going to a medical institution and the contact is solely by phone.”

Ezra also noted that addressing the psychological as well as the physical impact of an assault is standard procedure at hospitals’ acute care centers for sexual assault victims. “That’s why at acute care centers, the usual procedure is for the victim to meet first with a social worker experienced in handling such issues, who will accompany the victim throughout his/her stay at the center,” she wrote.

Dr. Vered Ezra, February 21, 2019.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The issue of telephone consultations first arose in April, when the ministry issued new instructions for treating sexual assault victims in response to the coronavirus. Victims no longer had to visit an acute care center. Instead, they could consult by phone with a doctor who could prescribe medications, some of which needs to be taken very shortly after the assault.

But in mid-October, during a roundtable discussion among various government agencies and women’s organizations, the Health Ministry revealed it intended this initial consultation with a doctor to be conditional on the victim first speaking with the acute care center’s on-call social worker. For the ministry, this conversation is “very important for a professional evaluation and in order to treat the entire problem rather than only the part that involves medication.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Lobby for the War Against Sexual Violence sent a letter to the ministry protesting this decision.

The letter noted that abusers can infect their victims with serious illnesses, including AIDS, for which preventive treatment must be given immediately. The same is true of medications to prevent pregnancy.

Consequently, forcing a victim to consult a social worker before they can get medications prescribed could greatly delay this vital treatment, the letter argues. Moreover, a victim who doesn’t want to speak to a social worker would be denied these prescriptions entirely.

It’s important for sexual assault victims to consult mental health professionals, the letter continued, “but such a conversation can’t be forced on the victims, and conditioning medical treatment on it is unreasonable, violates the Patients’ Rights Law and undermines the victims’ right to health, dignity and autonomy.”

The two organizations demanded that sexual assault victims who call the hospital be allowed to speak with a doctor immediately. Along with prescribing the necessary medications, the doctor could then urge the victims to speak with a social worker as well.

But Ezra’s response rejected this argument and made clear that the requirement to speak with a social worker will remain in place.