Human Trafficking: How would you rate your training as a healthcare professional?

As health care professionals we are trained and educated in a wide variety of health issues. One particular issue that health care providers may or may not be well trained in is human trafficking.

What is human trafficking?

The Department of Homeland Security explains that human trafficking is the exploitation of individuals (of any age, race, gender or nationality) into various types of forced labor or commercial sex acts through force, fraud or coercion.

In a study done by Powell et al. (2017), it was found that across the board the training content for health care providers regarding human trafficking needs to become more standardized to assure correct information, trauma-informed care and consistent messaging is being relayed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Emergency Physicians are among the top medical organizations who have developed curricula and training for health care providers. While some training is better than no training at all, the study found that the content of the education varied widely and there was little evaluation of the impact of the training (Powell et al., 2017).

A policy forum article noted several interesting statistics:

  • Per the forum, 88 percent of human trafficking persons had been in contact with at least one health care provider at some time during their time of being trafficked but were not identified or offered help
  • 29 percent of emergency department staff thought human trafficking was an issue in their ED
  • Only 13 percent of the emergency department staff felt confident that they could identify human trafficking persons
  • fewer than 3 percent of emergency department staff had been trained to recognize human trafficking people (Rollins et al., 2017)

Those are eye opening statistics that as a whole we need to improve across the board in all health care settings.

Barriers to identifying trafficking victims for health care professionals

It is vital that we become more aware and educated in the realm of human trafficking. We may be the only “safe” person that individual comes in contact with. The individual being trafficked may come in by themselves, but may not ask for assistance.

There are many factors that can prevent the individual for asking for help. One factor in particular is fear–fear that their trafficker will harm them or their family. This is a huge barrier in identifying and helping trafficking victims.

This barrier makes one wonder how a health care provider can identify and help someone being trafficked if they appear somewhat normal, come in by themselves, answer questions normally (because they have been coached in how to answer questions), don’t appear to be in danger or distress, don’t come right out and say they are being trafficked and need help and are so good at playing a “normal role” due to fear. It is a very complex situation that unfortunately won’t be solved overnight.

Overcoming barriers to identification

Rollins et al. (2017) discuss one way to overcome the barrier of identifying human trafficking is to learn the social determinants of health within the community. High risk populations include people with a history of childhood neglect/abuse, children in foster care, children who have spent time in the juvenile justice system, runaway/homeless youth, individuals with disabilities, individuals with low incomes, undocumented immigrants, migrant workers and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals (Rollins et al., 2017). While the trafficked person may not fall into any of these categories, we should at least be more on guard when we encounter individuals in these populations.

Training is key to better awareness

The take home point of this blog post was to bring more awareness to the unfortunate reality of human trafficking in our society and that as health care professionals we are on the front lines to be a part of the solution. More training is definitely needed. Every medical college, dental college, physician assistant and nurse practitioner program, and nursing school should have human trafficking training within their curriculum.

Another big take away is to follow your gut instinct. If you feel something is off about a patient or situation, it probably is. Don’t ignore your instinct, investigate it, it could very well be worth it. You might not only save that one individual who’s being trafficked, but you could help all the other individuals that are being trafficked along side your patient.

If you do come across someone who is being trafficked, a reliable resource to contact is the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC).


Department of Homeland Security. (2020). The Blue Campaign: What is human trafficking.

Powell, C., Dickins, K., & Stoklosa, H. (2017). Training US health care professionals on human trafficking: Where do we go from here? Medical education online, 22(1), 1267980.

Rollins, R., Gribble, A., Barrett, S. E., & Powell, C. (2017). Who is in your waiting room? Health care professionals as culturally responsive and trauma-informed first responders to human
trafficking. AMA Journal of Ethics, 19(1), 63-71. doi: 10.1001/journalofethics.2017.19.1.pfor2-

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