SAFE-T Center provides expert support to sexual assault nurse examiners

April 24, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — April is National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, when organizations nationwide combine efforts to raise public awareness of the consequences of sexual violence. At Penn State, the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Telehealth (SAFE-T) Center focuses on those who need the most help — assault victims — by providing expert consultation and training to the nurses who provide care for them.

“Having a forensic exam performed with expert nursing assistance in a safe, supported environment can be the first step toward healing,” said Sheridan Miyamoto, assistant professor of nursing and director of the SAFE-T Center. “Every victim deserves expert care, and every nurse deserves support in providing that care.”

Launched in 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, the SAFE-T Center works to enhance access to high-quality, sexual-assault care in underserved communities. Currently at three partner sites in Pennsylvania, the center provides telehealth support from experienced professionals during forensic exams, as well as training for nurses and health care professionals.

Jana French is one of two clinical coordinators that manage a team of expert sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) and local nurses who provide care to victims.

“When a sexual assault exam is performed at one of our partner hospitals, a SANE participates through telehealth (the use of telecommunications technologies for enhancing health care delivery),” she explained. “The expert nurse appears on a screen where she can talk, and provide support, to both the on-site nurse and the victim.”

Through the SAFE-T Center’s specialized digital telehealth technology, the SANE can see the live exam in progress, helping to ensure best practices and proper evidence collection.

Hospitals in rural communities such as those served by the center’s partner hospitals — Penn Highlands DuBois, J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital in Huntingdon, and UPMC Susquehanna Soldiers + Sailors Memorial Hospital in Wellsboro — typically don’t see more than a dozen or so sexual assault cases each year, French continued. This can present challenges for nurses to keep their skills up to date. 

“Sexual assault exams can be technically and emotionally difficult, and staff who perform them may be difficult to retain,” she said. “The SAFE-T Center offers quality assurance, peer support, mentorship and on-demand training to help nurses feel confident that they are doing a good job.”

Jessica Birbeck is a nurse educator at Soldiers + Sailors Memorial Hospital. After hearing a presentation by the SAFE-T Center team on the work they were doing, she signed up for a 40-hour online training course to become a SANE, offered by the International Association of Forensic Nurses. Since then, she has participated in a local sexual assault exam with support from an expert telehealth nurse, and said the experience helped her feel much more competent.

“It truly is an amazing resource for rural health care providers,” she said. “We hope to eventually start educating the local community about sexual assault issues with support from the SAFE-T Center.”

“Local providers are grateful to have us there with them — it helps to increase their confidence as well as reduce turnover in the profession,” French concluded. “The SAFE-T Center really is an incredible opportunity to provide support to rural nurses, who in turn can provide high-quality care to their patient population.”

For more information on the SAFE-T Center, visit their website or contact Sheridan Miyamoto at sjm6101@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 24, 2019