Every successful conversation about preventing human trafficking starts with a simple instruction, according to survivors.

“Show empathy,” implored Jose Alfaro at the final 2021 AHA, HEAL Trafficking and Jones Day anti-trafficking convening. Alfaro, himself a survivor, shared how – despite multiple contacts with health care for his post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use and anxiety – no health professional identified the underlying trafficking trauma that was driving his symptoms.

Jose’s complex trauma as a result of his experience is not unique. That’s why, every day, those who have been trafficked come through the doors of hospitals across the United States seeking help, presenting a number of different symptoms and experiences that require treatment. Our challenge is to understand how we can ensure that the help hospitals provide is not just a temporary bandage limited to treating the medical problem at hand, and instead a step towards liberation from exploitation.

Ostensibly, the idea of tackling a “new issue” in our health systems might seem overwhelming while simultaneously recovering from the ravages of COVID-19. However, addressing trafficking is squarely within every hospital’s reach. Historically, hospitals’ engagement on issues such as child abuse, domestic violence and community violence have brought healing to countless lives, and engaging in human trafficking response should be no less critical.

There are three steps that every hospital can take:

Educate. All staff in health systems need to be aware of high-risk indicators of labor and sex trafficking, and know how to respond based on their role. Hospitals must gear their training to the clinical environment, utilize adult learning principles, address existing biases, be survivor-informed and exclude sensational imagery. As Jose’s experiences with health care professionals remind us, strategies for building trust and providing non-judgmental care are critical. The Department of Health and Human Services’ offers high-quality, free educational resources with continuing educational credits, some of which can be integrated into hospital learning management systems. Learn more about the SOAR (Stop, Observe, Act, Respond) to Healthand Wellness Program here.

Create Policies and Procedures. AHA’s recent survey of over 400 participants at the most recent anti-trafficking convening showed that 54% did not have a human trafficking response program. Well-intentioned health care efforts that are reactive, rather than proactive, result in harm to trafficking survivors. A simple place to start for every hospital is integrating a trafficking response program into existing interpersonal violence policies and procedures. HEAL Trafficking’s Toolkit is a comprehensive manual for health systems in designing policies and procedures.

“Never give up.” This is the mantra of Ingrid Johnson, R.N., patient access manager at Atlantic Health System – Overlook Medical Center, and mother of a trafficking survivor. Anti-human trafficking efforts are rewarding work, but it requires a commitment from hospital leadership and a constant eye toward quality improvement. The resources are there. The action steps are clear. The time is now. The AHA’s Hospital Against Violence initiative and HEAL Trafficking are here to help you.

Hanni Stoklosa, M.D., is founding CEO of HEAL Trafficking and an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. George L. Askew, M.D., is chairperson of the HEAL Trafficking Board and deputy chief administrative officer for Health, Human Services, and Education for Prince George’s County in Maryland.


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