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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Healthcare and Human Trafficking

Healthcare providers are in a distinct position to identify and respond to human trafficking victims. According to one study, 87.8% of human trafficking victims encounter a healthcare professional while being held captive. Some of the hotspots where trafficking may be found include the ER, urgent care clinics and walk-in clinics. Few, if any, of these encounters result in the victim being freed due to a lack of training by healthcare workers. This lack of training results in misconceptions among healthcare employees which delays the identification of and service provision to human trafficking victims. In most cases, only minimal questions are asked at these locations, as the focus is only on the primary complaint.

Victims of human trafficking often have many underlying problems. They may suffer from a variety of physical and mental/emotional problems stemming from inhumane living conditions, poor sanitation and personal hygiene, lack of good nourishment, dangerous workplace conditions such as physical and psychological abuse, and a general lack of medical care. It is because of these issues that medical care is sought.

Once they present for treatment, there are signs that may be given by a victim of human trafficking that can be detected by one who is observant. Avoiding eye contact, hesitating when answering questions as well as changing the story when answering questions, being in the presence of another that will not allow the victim to speak on their own, and exhibiting hostile, nervous, or fearful behavior are just a few of the indicators that may be exhibited. Once these victims are recognized, medical providers are also in a notable position to provide information and options, as well as support, to these individuals if, and when, they are ready to report their situation.

Healthcare institutions can utilize several safety actions to assist in preparing staff to be on alert to identify and help patients that may be a victim. These measures include having an interpreter available to alleviate any language barriers, incorporating social, home, and work history questions, as well as domestic violence screening questions in the initial contact, and training frontline staffers how and when to alert the proper authorities. It is also important for healthcare workers to know how to connect these patients with the appropriate support systems. One such screening tool mentioned here was implemented at a Detroit hospital and was instrumental in identifying seventeen victims of human trafficking in the first year it was employed.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA) Journal of Ethics in the United States, varying laws might require a healthcare professional to make a report to either law enforcement or child protective services after an interaction with a human trafficking victim. Each state has its own laws dealing with this situation and as a result, each institution should be aware of its responsibilities.

Human trafficking is flourishing in today’s world and poses major health risks for victims. Understanding the warning signs of human trafficking is one of the easiest ways to help fight against this form of slavery. It only requires one to be more vigilant and aware in the medical setting, as well as any workplace setting. Healthcare practitioners, especially those in the emergency department or clinic settings, have a unique contact point in order to intervene. But, personnel need to be sensitive to these individual’s vulnerabilities and critical needs. In order to do this, more resources should be devoted to training practitioners about this emerging issue.

The Village Project provides industry specific training programs that include risk assessment, methods of liaising with local law enforcement and overall programs to help stop trafficking before it starts. Interested in learning more? Please call or email at or (571) 508-7079.

Prevent. Protect. Prevail.

Many thanks to Susan for her contribution. Susan, former Chief Nurse Anesthetist of Reston Anesthesia Associates with 38 years of medical experience, also graduated from Penn State University with a masters in Homeland Security/ Public Health Preparedness.

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