Editor's Note: In recognition of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day today, we are republishing this story from February 2016. This article was updated to reflect passage of a TMA resolution to raise physician awareness of human trafficking, and to include information about continuing medical education (CME) for physicians on human trafficking at TexMed 2017, TMA's annual physician conference.
Some victims of human trafficking are walking into physicians’ offices, and many doctors believe these visits put the doctor in a unique position to help them escape sexual labor and slavery, reports Texas Medicine magazine, the monthly publication of the Texas Medical Association (TMA).
Last year, TMA passed a resolution to help.
While it happens in many states, Texas is one prominent epicenter of the U.S. human trafficking trade, accounting for nearly one-tenth of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s tip calls in 2014. A 2008 Texas Attorney General report said nearly 20 percent of human trafficking victims found nationwide had been in Texas. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently proclaimed January 2016 Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
Reports show many of these victims visit physicians, most commonly in emergency departments and urgent care centers. One such report compiled responses from a series of focus groups of female sexual trafficking survivors. Of those survivors who answered questions about their health care, nearly 88 percent told the winter 2014 Annals of Health Law they had contact with a health care practitioner while being trafficked.
Some physicians see those visits as opportune for helping the victims escape their situation.
“Medical providers are some of the only professionals that victims of human trafficking come in contact with during their period of slavery,” said obstetrician-gynecologist Melinda Lopez, MD, who founded and ran a clinic for sexual trafficking victims in Austin in 2013-14. “So we are really a window of opportunity for these people who are seeking access to services and to escape their situation. When we’re not able to pick up on some of those [signs] ourselves or even know what the risk factors are, or what to do with those after we do identify them, we’re missing that opportunity.”
Arlo Weltge, MD, vice speaker of TMA’s House of Delegates, said a resolution to raise physicians’ awareness of trafficking was a step in the right direction, because once physicians know what to look for, they’ll begin to recognize when a potential victim shows up in their exam room. TMA’s Medical Student Section introduced the resolution and the TMA House of Delegates, the organization's policy-making body, passed it during TexMed 2016, TMA's annual meeting.
To continue the progress physicians are making to help victims of human trafficking, TMA is offering continuing medical education (CME) at this year's TexMed in Houston.
David Gruber, assistant commissioner for regional and local health services at the Texas Department of State Health Services, told Texas Medicine more physician involvement in identifying trafficking victims and taking subsequent action represents “an opportunity to intervene, to break the chain of events.”
“I can compare it to being primed for Ebola or a highly contagious infectious disease or the doctor in Florida who identified the anthrax case way back in 2001,” he said. “If you’re attuned to something, you have a better chance of being able to recognize it. So if we can educate those in the medical community on signs and symptoms, much like we do for signs and symptoms of disease, then there’s a chance to do some good.”