Essential hospitals are all too familiar with the painful reality of human trafficking. Often serving populations targeted by traffickers, essential hospitals are in a good position to identify this problem and help affected individuals.

Countless trafficked people remain silent due to fear of judgment, further abuse, and law enforcement. This hidden crime is increasingly difficult to identify, and advocates struggle to get affected people the care and resources they need. Recognizing their unique position, many essential hospitals have invested in education for hospital staff about human trafficking and best practices in identifying and caring for those affected.

Henry Ford Health System, in Detroit, and Harris Health System, in Houston, are two examples of essential hospitals that have implemented such initiatives.

Developing a New Path Forward

As part of her doctoral project for Wayne State University, in Detroit, Danielle Bastien, DNP, APRN, created a policy for Henry Ford Health System that helps providers identify and treat trafficked people. Bastien notes the majority of trafficked individuals come into direct contact with health care staff at some point, and more than half will come through emergency departments (EDs). However, less than 1 percent of trafficked people are identified as such. A variety of factors contribute to patient silence, but Bastien says hospital staff — specifically in the ED — are not trained to identify affected individuals and signs of human trafficking.

Fortunately, as Bastien worked on her policy proposal, Michigan implemented a new requirement that all licensed health care staff receive education on human trafficking identification. “This was a really important step, and one that every state should adopt,” Bastien says. State-level education requirements and training on human trafficking are key to addressing this issue.

It took roughly two years for Bastien to write a human trafficking policy at Henry Ford. In addition to creating sound guidelines for the hospital, Bastien worked with hospital staff, legal teams, law enforcement, and other community stakeholders to ensure the policy reflected state and federal laws, as well as clear steps and best practices for identifying those affected. The final policy received overwhelming support from Henry Ford’s leadership and was adopted in 2019. Key components of this internal policy include:

  • updated software and electronic health records that reflect new screening questions;
  • an assessment tool for emergency staff to use during patient intake; and
  • robust education and dissemination plans for hospital staff on the new policy.

Shortly after the policy was adopted, Bastien began educating ED staff on the new assessment tool and key factors they should look for when scanning for human trafficking involvement.

The hospital immediately noticed changes.

“Nurses started looking at patients through a different lens; ED staff started flagging nuances they would have otherwise ignored, and the first night of implementation, we actually identified a victim,” Bastien says. Since implementing this new practice, Bastien’s policy guidelines have been shared with numerous hospital systems.

Building on Existing Infrastructure

At Harris Health, Mollie Gordon, MD, and Asim Shah, MD, leverage existing infrastructure to help trafficked people. State and hospital-level policies are important first steps in combatting human trafficking, Gordon says, but engaging with municipal leaders and building relationships with outside stakeholders also is critical. Harris Health partners with the Houston Area Human Trafficking Health Care Consortium on its efforts.

“As part of the Consortium, our hospital works very closely with other providers, rehab clinics, shelters, law enforcement, and other advocates to make sure we are addressing this problem from all angles,” Gordon says. She explains it is important to identify human trafficking as a form of violence and a social determinant of health (SDOH).

“As our hospital continues to work on addressing SDOH, [these factors] become more relevant in the trafficking space and we see more clearly the impacts that trafficking can have on vulnerable populations,” Gordon says.

Both Henry Ford Health System and Harris Health have made significant progress through these initiatives in fighting human trafficking in their communities. Essential hospitals’ expertise in innovation and focus on communities enable them to make a real impact on this pressing public health threat.

Our newest State Policy Snapshot offers more information on human trafficking policy trends at the state level.