by Stacy Shomo, Research Associate
Emergency departments in the United States are places where everyday lives are saved from problems like heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents. Unfortunately, they are also considered the safety net of U.S. health care- the place where people receive medical care when they can’t get it elsewhere. This often includes people that are victims of human trafficking. Despite increasing awareness of the problem of human trafficking over the past decade, Health care has largely been left out of the discussion. Though accurate statistics about human trafficking are hard to come by, A report from the World Childhood Foundation and Family Violence Prevention Fund estimated that up to 28% of human trafficking victims received medical care at some point during their exploitation.
This means that doctors, nurses, paramedics, dentists and other medical professionals are often the only people with the opportunity to interact with trafficking victims while they are still in the control of their traffickers.
This potential interaction with a person actively being exploited is the reason that health care needs to be involved in the issue of human trafficking. Medical providers need to have a comprehensive awareness of human trafficking and training on identification of and care of trafficking victims. This knowledge is currently lacking. It is not only lacking in clinics and doctors’ offices, but also in emergency departments around the country.
Nurses and doctors are trained in recognition of signs of child abuse, domestic violence and people at risk for suicide. Often these screenings are required on each patient. But there is no standard screening for people subject to forced labor, forced begging, sexual exploitation or other forms of trafficking. A medical facility may be the only lifeline presented to a trafficking victim. They should not slip through the cracks.
The unfortunate reality is that with the current state of health care, hospitals are very unlikely to implement training for their staff about human trafficking. Hospitals are faced with new standards and “core measures” each year by their accreditation organization, The Joint Commission. These are placed on top of the standards from previous years and directly influence the amount of money the hospital gets paid by the government for the care provided to Medicare and Medicaid patients. The obvious priority for hospitals is to educate staff on those issues. Not on human trafficking.
Training in human trafficking can be a reality for healthcare professionals. Assessment tools and online courses are readily available from The National Human Trafficking Resource Center. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has a pilot program of health care provider education called SOAR to Health and Wellness. SOAR stands for Stop, Observe, Ask, and Respond to human trafficking. The training is part of a five year Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victim of Human Trafficking in the United States.
Although information on the specifics of this program is limited, it shows promise as a comprehensive training that does not simply focus on women, children and sex trafficking. Instead it addresses the reality of different types of trafficking including labor trafficking and domestic servitude. Additionally, the training identifies men as an under-recognized group and discusses high risk populations such as LGBTQ individuals, victims of abuse and migrant workers. Theses group tend to receive less attention in today’s human trafficking narrative. The training was initially taught at only 5 locations in the U.S. but will hopefully be available to more medical professionals in the future.
Sadly, available training programs will be of no benefit in overcoming barriers to identification of victims if they are not utilized. If hospitals are unable or unwilling to implement education on human trafficking, there are other avenues. Education can be developed and promoted through professional organizations such as the American Medical Association or the Emergency Nurses Association. These associations can incorporate key information into certification tests and/or annual conferences. State licensing boards can require online education as a condition of license renewal.
No longer can healthcare personnel remain unaware of the issue of human trafficking and of their power to help. The healthcare system needs to use available tools to remove barriers and begin consistently identifying and intervening to assist victims of trafficking.
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