Survivors of torture in a general medical setting: how often have patients been tortured, and how often is it missed?

West J Med. 2000 May;172(5):301-4. doi: 10.1136/ewjm.172.5.301.


Objectives: To measure the frequency of people reporting torture among patients in a medical outpatient clinic and to determine primary care physicians' awareness of their patients' exposure to torture.

Design: Cross-sectional survey followed by selected in-depth interviews of participants reporting a history of torture. Medical record review and interview of torture survivors' primary care physicians.

Setting: The internal medicine clinic of a large, urban medical center.

Participants: A convenience sample of 121 adult patients who were not born in the United States and who were attending the adult ambulatory care clinic.

Interventions: All participants were interviewed using the Detection of Torture Survivors Survey, a validated instrument that asks about exposure to torture according to the World Medical Association definition of torture. Participants who reported a history of torture were interviewed in depth to confirm that they had been tortured. We reviewed the medical records of participants who reported a history of torture and interviewed their primary care physicians.

Main outcome measures: Self-reported history of torture. The awareness of primary care physicians of this history.

Results: Eight of 121 participants (6.6% [95% confidence interval: 3.1%-13.1%]) reported a history of torture. None of the survivors of torture had been identified as such by their primary care physician.

Conclusions: Physicians of patients who have not been born in the United States and who attend urban general medical clinics frequently are unaware that their patients are survivors of torture. Primary care physicians can be the locus of intervention in the care of torture survivors. The first step is for physicians to recognize the possibility of torture survivors among their patients.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Data Collection
  • Emigration and Immigration / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New York City
  • Primary Health Care
  • Torture / statistics & numerical data*