By Andrew M. Seaman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Healthcare professionals can play a role in addressing human trafficking and sexual exploitation, according to two new reports.
Doctors and researchers write in JAMA Pediatrics that it’s up to a collection of people and agencies to advance and strengthen U.S. efforts to prevent, identify and respond to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors.
“Human trafficking is a significant worldwide dilemma,” Dr. Aimee Grace said. “In the U.S., healthcare providers can do something about it.”
Grace, of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., is the lead author of one of the reports addressing the integration of lessons about human trafficking into medical education and training.
“We hope (addressing) human trafficking becomes more a part of the norm about what medical providers provide as part of their practice,” she said.
In another report, Dr. Angela Diaz of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and her co-authors write that the sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors are serious and frequently overlooked, misunderstood and unaddressed problems in the U.S.
The frequency of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking is underreported, they add, because the activities occur behind closed doors.
A history of maltreatment, family violence and unstable housing as well as being a gay, bisexual or transgender youth are among the risk factors for sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, Diaz and her colleagues write.
“Although direct scientific data are sparse, there is little doubt that commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors are associated with serious, often lifelong, and sometimes life-threatening consequences,” they write.
In their report, Grace and her co-authors write that healthcare professionals may be some of the few people to interact with sexual exploitation and sex trafficking victims. One study found about half of trafficking survivors had sought medical attention while being trafficked, they note.
Grace told Reuters Health that there are areas where sexual exploitation and sex trafficking can be addressed within the healthcare setting, for example when doctors ask questions about intimate partner violence and sexual abuse.
She also said there are a number of tools to educate doctors about those topics.
“A lot of them have been met with success,” Grace said.
Medical schools, residency programs, health professional organizations and regulatory bodies can ensure that lessons about human trafficking become part of medical education, Grace and her co-authors write.
Healthcare professionals can also support research that will provide evidence for informing and updating those lessons, they add.
“I agree with the articles that screening is definitely one of the approaches we can use to begin to solve this problem,” said Marilyn Sommers. “The difficultly is that it’s an incredibly complicated problem.”
Sommers was not involved with the new reports but directs the Center for Global Women’s Health at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia.
She added that approaches to address exploitation and trafficking need to be based on evidence and include what healthcare professionals should do if they identify a victim.
“I think there needs to be some common ground on who you screen, when you screen and what you do about it,” she said.
Diaz and colleagues say the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council will be releasing guides based off of their new report on commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors, including a guide specifically for healthcare professionals.
“I think we’re in the infancy but I think a lot of people are doing what they think makes sense,” Sommers said. “I think it takes time for the evidence to accumulate.”