Continuing Education,  Healthcare,  Nursing

Identifying Human Trafficking in Healthcare for Nurses


An estimated 24.9 million people are victims of human trafficking (Human Trafficking Statistics & Facts, 2022). Of these 24.9 million people:

  • 16 million people are trafficked for forced labor for private individuals, groups, and companies.
  • 8 million people are trafficked for forced sexual exploitation. Of these 4.8 million people, 3.8 million are adults and 1 million are children who are forced into commercial sexual exploitation.
  • 1 million people are trafficked for state-enforced labor.

(Human Trafficking Statistics & Facts, 2022).


Human Trafficking: Defined

Human trafficking can be defined as “the practice of exploiting adults and children for use as commodities, or objects, in conditions of sexual and labor servitude” (Human Trafficking Statistics & Facts, 2022).

Human TraffickingHuman trafficking often involves the abduction of women and children into forced slavery. While this can be true, traffickers also use coercive methods to lure victims, including the following:

  • Demanding repayment for a debt, real or alleged.
  • Using or threatening their victim with violence.
  • Using the promise of a false economic opportunity.
  • Paying little to nothing for work

(Human Trafficking Statistics & Facts, 2022).

Healthcare workers must be vigilant about the proper identification of human trafficking victims. Understanding what human trafficking involves, as well as other risk factors and red flags can assist in its identification (Chambers et al., 2019). Healthcare workers must be vigilant about the proper identification of human trafficking victims. Using the definition of human trafficking in addition to fostering awareness of various red flags and risk factors can help.


Identifying Human Trafficking Victims

Nurses occupy a unique position in identifying human trafficking victims. An estimated 88 percent of victims seek medical care at some point during their captivity (Identifying Human Trafficking In The Healthcare System, 2020).


Identifying Risk Factors

Though anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, several risk factors can increase the likelihood of being a victim. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Having a personal history of abuse and neglect
  • Being from a different country
  • Having a family or friend in the sex trade
  • Having been in the child welfare system
  • Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer
  • Having mental health problems
  • Experiencing substance abuse
  • Being a homeless youth
  • Relocating

(Chambers et al., 2019)


Behavioral Red Flags

Regardless of risk factors, several identifiable red flags can signify an increased likelihood of being a victim of human trafficking; some of these red flags include:

  • Refusing to provide medical history
  • Hesitating to provide medical history
  • Acting in a sexually suggestive way
  • Wearing clothing that is revealing or inappropriate for the weather
  • Exhibiting body language that indicates fear, anxiety, or anger not in keeping with the context of the situation
  • Failing to have control of their own money or documentation, such as identification
  • Being in the presence of a controlling third party
  • Testing frequently for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy

(Chambers et al., 2019)


Signs and Symptoms

In addition to behavioral red flags, the victim may present with the following subjective and objective complaints:

  • Anal trauma
  • Genital trauma
  • Branding tattoos
  • Exhaustion
  • Injuries related to exposure, such as burns and frostbite
  • Gastrointestinal complaints
  • Recurrent sexually transmitted infections and urinary tract infections
  • Presence of various bruises, cuts, and scrapes

(Chambers et al., 2019)

Human Trafficking and the Law

Healthcare workers can learn more about human trafficking because various states have placed laws and statutes regarding the education of staff, as well as caring for human trafficking victims. Unfortunately, laws, statutes, and screening tools are not universal, meaning that the victim of human trafficking may receive different care, depending on where they reside (Identifying Human Trafficking In The Healthcare System, 2020).


Many states have created workgroups and task forces that allow for coordination between the health system, law enforcement, and child welfare agencies:


  • Twenty-two states have received special funding for healthcare and social support for victims of human trafficking, and funding for the training of healthcare providers (Waugh, 2018).
  • Georgia, Louisiana, and Oregon have funds that apply specifically to children who are victims of sex trafficking. (Waugh, 2018).
  • Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have laws promoting access to information about human trafficking through National Human Trafficking Hotline. This service allows anyone to access information about human trafficking. It also allows victims to call or chat through their website. The public can also report suspicions of human trafficking (Waugh, 2018).

On the federal level, several actions have been taken that promote training for healthcare professionals:

  • Stop, Observe, Ask, and Respond (SOAR) to Health and Wellness Act was passed in February 2018. It proposed providing healthcare workers with access to training identifying and proper treatment of human trafficking victims (Waugh, 2018).
  • The Blue Campaign, developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has developed assessment tools and protocols to be used by medical front-line responders (Waugh, 2018).


The Bottom Line…

Human trafficking affects millions of men, women, and children. Though healthcare workers have improved in identifying and assisting victims, it remains a challenge because of the lack of correct training. Legislation, on the state and federal levels, has begun to provide increased tools to assist in the identification of and care for victims.

Looking to learn more on how to identify human trafficking within the healthcare setting?

Click the link below and find out more about how you can learn to identify human trafficking within the healthcare setting while earning hours toward your continuing professional education requirements?

Guest Blogger

Krysti Ostermeyer is an RN, Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES), and a freelance writer. She enjoys writing about health, wellness, and nursing. She dreams about being a full-time writer when she grows up. 
When Krysti isn’t working, she enjoys mountain biking, hiking, taking walks, practicing yoga, reading, and drinking copious amounts of iced coffee. 

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Chambers, R., Ravi, A., & Paulus, S. (2019). Human Trafficking: How Family Physicians Can Recognize and Assist Victims. American Family Physician, 100(4), 202–204.


Human Trafficking Statistics & Facts. (2022). Safe Horizon.


Identifying Human Trafficking In The Healthcare System. (2020, April 10). Duquesne University School of Nursing.


Waugh, L. (2018, April). Human Trafficking and the Health Care System. National Conference of State Legislatures.