Dignity Health leads fight against human trafficking, offers coordinated approach to identify, support victims

Hospital lobby
Healthcare organizations must do more than just educate staff to identify and respond to trafficked persons. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Many victims of human trafficking interact with the healthcare system, so it’s important that providers have structures in place to recognize the signs and help people who may be vulnerable.

Studies have shown that as many as 88% of human trafficking victims have had at least one interaction with the healthcare system, and now some hospitals and health systems have decided to tackle the issue and develop programs to support and identify victims.

San Francisco-based Dignity Health, one of the nation’s largest healthcare systems, has developed a "shared learning manual" that outlines its successful Human Trafficking Response (HTR) Program, which could serve as a baseline for other hospitals and health systems to devise their own programs. Dignity Health launched HTR in 2014, and in fiscal year 2016 alone the organization identified at least 31 patients who had many warning signs that they were victims of human trafficking.

Holly Gibbs

Holly Gibbs, the program’s director and a survivor of human trafficking herself, said in an interview with FierceHealthcare that she had previously spoken regularly on the topic for law enforcement officials, legislators or social services workers, but healthcare workers were rarely at the table. That needs to change, she said, because the healthcare industry has the power to offer a lifeline to these victims.

"Our goal is to share our best practices with other systems so that one day human trafficking response programs like ours will be a standard offering at all hospitals and healthcare facilities across the country," she said.

Healthcare organizations must do more than just educate staff to identify and respond to trafficked persons, said Page West, Dignity Health senior vice president of patient care services and system chief nursing executive, in an announcement. “Our program is unique because we are taking into consideration the entire care continuum. Holly’s experience and knowledge as a survivor are invaluable as we look to address the unmet needs of trafficked victims.”

Prior to the launch of a new program, organizations need the support of hospital leaders as well as tools in place to assist staff, such as access to social workers or chaplains for emotional support, Gibbs said. 

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The training and education for staff members can be emotionally overwhelming, Gibbs said. For instance, through Dignity’s training she has shared stories of patients who were victims to illustrate how the problem hits close to home, and some clinicians were struck hard when they learned they treated a victim but didn't notice the signs.

“This is a heavy topic, and it is going to move staff,” she said. “It’s not happening to ‘them,’ it’s happening to ‘us.’ People may know survivors and may be survivors.”

Gibbs said that it’s vital that groups that want to help human trafficking victims listen to survivors and collaborate with them. Dignity Health’s program, which has been rolled out in nearly 40 hospitals across three states, “recognizes the importance of including and empowering survivors from the beginning,” she said.

Dignity’s program was first launched in emergency departments before expanding to maternity and postpartum wards. As it expands to all of the system’s acute care facilities, program leaders are also working to develop different guidelines that can be applied to other clinical settings, like physicians’ offices and community centers.

RELATED: Human trafficking: 4 warning signs for doctors that your patient may be a victim

Gibbs said it can be hard to devise specific warning signs for human trafficking, as it presents in a variety of ways. But she said providers can look for patients who are accompanied by a controlling partner, seem fearful or submissive or show signs of assault. A checklist also doesn’t go far enough to address stigmas around human trafficking that could prevent a victim from coming forward, she said.

“Education has to go further than a list of red flags,” she said. “We have to understand what it means.”