The Vital Role of SANEs: An Interview with Course Author Teresa Devitt-Lynch

Female doctor consoling sad female patient at doctor's office.

From hospitals and clinics to correctional facilities and elder care centers, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) provide specialized care for victims of sexual assault. We sat down with the author of Elite’s SANE Adult and Adolescent Core Course, Teresa Devitt-Lynch, MSN, RN, AFN-BC, SANE-A, to learn a little more about the important role of SANEs.

Q: What makes SANE training different from regular RN or APN training?

A: BSN or RN education and licensing is required to become a SANE. This is a nursing specialty that requires education and training in addition to the standard RN/BSN curriculum. The training includes topics such as trauma-formed and patient-centered care, injury identification and documentation, evidence collection and handling, and legal issues and testimony.

Because SANEs often interact with non-medical professions, many courses include information on the role of victims’ advocates and law enforcement.

The initial training requirements also include a 40-hour didactic course and 16 hours of practical training. Certification requires additional working/clinical hours.

There are many post-baccalaureate certificate and Master’s level programs with a forensic nursing focus that meet the initial requirements as well, but these advanced trainings are not required.

Q: Is there a need for more SANEs in the current healthcare system?

A: Absolutely! With well over 100,000 sexual assaults in the U.S. annually, there is a significant gap in the availability of SANE services and the current need, especially in rural and tribal areas.

Because of the lack of SANEs, survivors often have to choose between forgoing an exam by a trained forensic nurse or driving long distances in search of a trained SANE. Though the evidence kits have instructions included for non-trained healthcare providers to perform the examinations, this is not the ideal situation.

Additionally, the SANE is often the conduit to survivors accessing immediate crisis services and long-term care, and the lack of SANE-trained examiners has been linked to increased rates of post-assault PTSD and chronic mental and health issues.

Q: Who should consider becoming a SANE?

A: Any nurse interested in forensics who also has a desire to help people who have survived significant physical, emotional, and psychological trauma should consider becoming a SANE.

Historically, many SANES started out as ED or Critical Care RNs, but that experience isn’t a necessary prerequisite. (For example, for the last 10 years, my primary background has been in medical/surgical and ambulatory surgery.)

However, it is recommended that an RN has a couple years’ experience to hone their assessment, critical thinking, and patient-relationship skills. While these are the cornerstones of any nursing specialty, they are especially vital to a SANE’s work, since the evidence we collect and the records we document may be used in legal proceedings.

Q: The requirements to earn a SANE certification are extensive. How does this kind of training impact patients?

A: I’d like to preface this answer with the proud note that nurses have been ranked the most trusted professionals in the United States for the past 17 years. Nurses form unique connections with patients, allowing them to see the whole person, not just the issue that leads them to seek care.

When caring for survivors of sexual trauma, SANEs are uniquely trained to provide the trauma-informed and patient-centered care needed to help them begin the healing process. It has also been shown that when cared for by a trained SANE, patients are more likely to participate in the investigative and legal processes, which have led to increased prosecution rates.

There’s no escaping the fact that the examination is invasive and can retraumatize sexual assault survivors. The last thing anyone caring for these individuals wants is to have survivors endure a long and intimate examination, only to have the evidence excluded from court because of improper collection and handling techniques. With the training SANEs receive, evidence is more likely to be properly collected and catalogued, which increases the likelihood that the evidence will stand up in court.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to explain more about SANE training. What is some advice you’d like to give nurses considering this career path?

A:  Like any other nursing specialty, you must have an interest in and—hopefully—a passion for this work. SANEs encounter patients at incredibly vulnerable moments after the most intimate of crimes. Though important, this work is not for the faint of heart.

If you are in a rural area where you think there may be limited patients but are interested in becoming a SANE, do it! Even providing these services to one patient a month or year can make a significant impact on their healing process.

Finally, take care of yourself. Taking on others’ trauma can be emotionally and psychologically draining, and self-care is imperative in this field.

Teresa Devitt-Lynch, MSN, RN, AFN-BC, SANE-A is the author of Elite’s new 40-hour Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Adult and Adolescent Core Course, which is approved by the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) to fulfill the didactic education requirements for nurses wanting to become adult and adolescent SANEs.

Learn more about SANEs and enroll in the course here.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on June 16, 2021 and updated on September 15, 2021.

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