A Nursing Perspective on Human Trafficking

As a registered nurse, I come in to contact with patients from all walks of life. It is my job to not only provide quality healthcare to these individuals, but to meet them where they are emotionally and provide them a safe place for healing.

Healthcare professionals are specifically trained to recognize domestic violence and are considered mandatory reporters for suspected child and elder abuse, yet I don’t ever recall human trafficking ever being discussed in either my formal nursing education or during hospital-specific orientation.

This gap in education has left many healthcare professionals in the dark about the reality and prevalence of human trafficking, as well as how to recognize and properly treat a potential victim.


Why is it so important for healthcare workers to be informed?

A study performed by the Loyola University Chicago School of Law found that 88% of the trafficked survivors who were interviewed had come in to contact with a healthcare provider during the time they were being trafficked. Most of these interactions occurred in emergency departments.

The scary part? A different study found that 95% of the clinical medical staff in emergency departments had never received any formal training on the treatment of human trafficking victims, and over 97% had never received formal training on the clinical presentation of trafficked victims.

This disparity in knowledge highlights the areas that we as providers of health need to improve in order to truly provide comprehensive care to this vulnerable population. If we do not recognize victims of human trafficking when they come in to our facilities, we are missing countless opportunities to reach them and potentially change the trajectory of their lives.

How do anti-human trafficking efforts currently fit in to the medical world?

Starting this month, the American Hospital Association (AHA) has implemented new diagnosis codes that healthcare providers can use that pertain specifically to human trafficking. This will not only help to differentiate human trafficking from other types of violence and abuse, but will also facilitate data collection and further development of specific treatment.

Northwell Health, the largest healthcare provider in New York, recently held a symposium this past January to educate and equip healthcare professionals to recognize human trafficking. At Huntington Hospital, one of Northwell’s healthcare facilities, a human trafficking response program taskforce that focuses on identification and assistance to victims of human trafficking was developed.

Looking forward, the taskforce plans to train Huntington emergency room workers and family health center staff to both recognize and treat human trafficking victims. Eventually, all of the Northwell Health System plans to incorporate the training to both clinical and non-clinical staff.

Dignity health, another large healthcare system with hospitals in California, Arizona, and Nevada, has implemented a human trafficking response program in the emergency departments and labor and delivery areas of each of its nearly 40 hospitals. They are currently rolling out the program at clinics and physicians' offices as well in order to reach a greater population. 

It is encouraging to see healthcare systems implementing various approaches to equip their staff to better care for potential victims of human trafficking. However, there remains a lack of consistency among facilities nationwide (with many providing no information at all).

There is currently legislation called the “SOAR Act” that has been presented to congress that would require comprehensive training about human trafficking for healthcare professionals including nurses, doctors, and first responders.

The goals of this Act are to increase education for identification, reporting, referral, and providing tailored care for this vulnerable population. If congress were to approve this legislation, education would be provided to all medical professionals, thus increasing knowledge and improving outcomes for victims of human trafficking.


Things to look for as a healthcare professional

While this is not a comprehensive list, below are a few major signs that can be indications of human trafficking in the healthcare setting:

-       Any signs of physical or sexual abuse

-       Patients who delay seeking medical care

-       A pattern of injuries that doesn’t make sense

-       Reluctance to explain injury or illness

-       Patients who come in with another person who seems overbearing, controlling, or who doesn’t want to leave the patient (especially of it is an unrelated male)

-       Patients who are unaware of their location, date, or time

-       Someone else speaking for the patient

-       Patient who is overly fearful or anxious

Being a nurse (or any healthcare professional) comes with a large responsibility. We take an oath to first and foremost “do no harm” to our patients. If health care providers are not properly trained to identify and treat victims of human trafficking, we could be missing an opportunity to prevent further harm to them.

By raising awareness of human trafficking, especially among the healthcare community, we can be better prepared to identify, give resources to, and treat victims. This truly encapsulates the idea of what it means to be a nurse – providing quality healthcare and emotional support right where they are, while also creating hope for a new future.

—Emily, BSN, RN


Resources for healthcare professionals who want more specific training

  • The Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) is a national division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that is based in Washington, D.C. They offer SOAR training online and in person for health professionals and social workers.

  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-3737-888) offers numerous online trainings for anyone who wants to learn more about human trafficking. They do have a specific training for healthcare professionals: “Recognizing and Responding to Human Trafficking in a healthcare context.”

  • The Stanford School of Medicine also has a human trafficking page with a great list of additional resources and trainings specifically for healthcare providers.

Proverbs 31:8-9