Human trafficking victims present unique challenge to doctors

Emergency room doctor physician stethoscope scrubs Getty/gordonsaunders
Healthcare professionals are in a unique position to help human trafficking victims.

Healthcare professionals often serve as the first and sometimes only point of contact for people who are victims of human trafficking.

That means that doctors and other medical practitioners have a unique opportunity and an ethical imperative to intervene when they suspect a patient is a victim of human trafficking, according to the AMA Journal of Ethics. The January issue of the American Medical Association’s publication focuses on the topic of human trafficking and the obligations of clinicians who care for victims.

Across the globe, approximately 21 million people are victimized by human trafficking, according to the report, making the ability of clinicians to identify them and provide treatment critical. However, caring for patients who are victims of human trafficking raises ethical challenges for healthcare professionals, according to Wendy L. Macias-Konstantopoulos, M.D., an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and co-founder and director of its Human Trafficking Initiative.

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“Clinicians who interact with trafficked persons will be more effective healthcare professionals if they are respectful of their patients’ wishes, sensitive to the complexity of their needs, and cognizant of factors that might have rendered them vulnerable to being trafficked in the first place—such as child abuse and neglect—so as to more empathically care for them while proactively avoiding their retraumatization,” she writes.

Physicians are in a unique position to help victims of human trafficking, as they are likely to encounter them in emergency rooms and clinics, FiercePracticeManagement previously reported. Clinicians may also treat more victims in the upcoming year as the country’s opioid epidemic has led to an increase in human trafficking cases, as traffickers exploit people desperate for drugs and force them into prostitution.

However, one problem is that evidence-based practice standards are not yet well defined for assisting potential victims, according to one of the journal articles. Healthcare professionals are beginning to learn how to be first responders and identify, treat and refer victims, but more research is needed to develop an effective standard of care to help guide clinicians to ensure that patients receive the services they need.

Physicians also need to consider legal issues, according to Jonathan Todres, a professor of law at Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta. He says there are implications to criminal law—with a focus on conspiracy—mandatory reporting laws and human rights law. The law in these areas can help healthcare professionals respond to human trafficking during clinical encounters, at an institutional level, and as a profession, he says.