Physicians uniquely positioned to help victims of human trafficking

By Matt Kuhrt

Doctors may be uniquely placed to fight human trafficking because they are more likely to encounter its victims than law enforcement, according to the first report in a three-part series on Marketplace.

The average American is not fully aware of what human trafficking is, much less the degree to which it is present in our society, says the report. Katherine Chon, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Trafficking in Persons, describes the practice for Marketplace in its most abstract form as "when one person takes advantage of another person for some profit."

While that definition covers a lot of ground, the element of control means there's typically an element of threat, violence or both in the equation. Marketplace spoke with an emergency room physician who wound up treating a patient with a GPS tracker implanted under her skin--placed there by her 'boyfriend' who had forced her into prostitution. Other situations can be more subtle, according to the article, ranging from physically holding someone captive to withholding vital documents, such as passports.

As one might expect, law enforcement has mostly taken the lead in identifying instances of trafficking, but a 2014 article published in the Annals of Health Law cited a study showing 87.8 percent of trafficking survivors received healthcare services from a hospital or clinic while they were being trafficked. This puts doctors in a unique position to intervene, provided they recognize the situation.

To that end, Catholic Health Initiatives recently launched a half-hour online course designed to help physicians identify and deal with possible victims. Both FierceHealthcare and FiercePracticeManagement have also previously described efforts to advocate patient screening and education about domestic abuse and start conversations with patients about violence, both of which may offer a useful template for approaching trafficking.

The doctors interviewed by Marketplace point to awareness as the first, crucial step in turning the tide, and emphasize that since traffickers tend to move around a lot, physicians may only have one shot to act. "I want us to help them when we have them in our midst," says Wendy Macias, M.D. at Massachusetts General Hospital, "because it may be the last time that they're here."

To learn more:
- read or listen to the Marketplace story