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

Physicians are in a unique position to help victims of human trafficking as they are likely to encounter them in emergency rooms and clinics, says Dona Constantine, senior risk management and patient safety specialist at the Cooperative of American Physicians, Inc. in California.

That’s why it's important that physician learn what to look for to identify victims of human trafficking and get them help, Constantine, pictured right,  told FiercePracticeManagement in an exclusive interview.

Research indicates 87 percent of human trafficking survivors said they received medical treatment from a hospital or clinic while they were being trafficked, but the problem often goes undetected, she says. Yet most emergency doctors aren't trained about the issue. In fact, many doctors may be unaware of how many people are victims of trafficking, she says. Estimates range from 14,500 to 17,500, according to a 2004 U.S. Department of State report.

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However, awareness is increasing and programs are being developed to train doctors and other healthcare professionals, such as the Human Trafficking Initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, she says. Doctors there are trained on potential red flags that can identify victims.

One of the major signs that a person is being controlled by someone who is with them is when the patient may appear fearful or does not speak for his or her self, she says.

In addition, there may be a delay in the patient seeking treatment or injuries that do not match a history or story. The patient may lack a passport or other identifying papers. Or there may be obvious signs such as ligature marks on a patient’s wrists or even a GPS tracker implanted under a victim’s skin.

If physicians or other healthcare workers are suspicious a patient is a victim, they should proceed cautiously, she advises. A person working as a trafficked sex worker could be worth around $180,000 a year to the person trafficking them and interference from healthcare workers will not be welcome. 

One step to take is to try and separate the patient from the person who is with them and seems to be controlling them, such as keeping that person busy with paperwork, she says. Victims may be scared and not know who they can trust, she says.

Victims also may not be ready to seek help. “You don’t help them unless they are ready,” she says. In that case, all healthcare professionals may be able to do is provide a victim with the number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a toll-free hotline that answers calls from anywhere in the U.S.

Whether healthcare professionals should call law enforcement, depends on the situation, she says. If a patient is a minor, health professionals are mandated to report abuse. If the patient is an adult, health professionals will want consent to contact law enforcement officials, she says.