Research Note: Development of an interprofessional program to address issues in human trafficking

By | 15th March 2018

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“Human trafficking (HT) is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act” (Department of Homeland Security, 2018). HT affects approximately 45 million individuals worldwide (Global Slavery Index, 2016) with profits for traffickers estimated to be 150 billion a year (International Labor Office, 2014). HT is a global problem (Polaris, 2017). As such, every sector of society has or will be touched by this issue in some way.

HT can be described as a hidden crime with victims suffering in silence due to fear, language barriers, and psychological vulnerability. With HT, recognizing potential victims is the first step in saving a life. According to Polaris (2017), the top five access points of help for a trafficked victim are law enforcement, health services, social services, child welfare, and family/friends.  These access points validate the importance of human trafficking education for students and professions in the health care and human service occupations. The consequences of human trafficking are severe, therefore students and practitioners in the health and human services profession, must be informed and educated on the best practices of interaction with and services of individuals affected by this illegal activity.

The World Health Organization (2010) states interprofessional education (IPE) “occurs when students from two or more professions learn about, from and with each other to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes” (p. 10). Students in programs of medicine, nursing, social work, counseling, pharmacy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, criminal justice, political, science, healthcare administration, and pastoral care require education on how to identify, interact, and respond human trafficking victims.  To fully prepare a workforce able to meet the trafficked population needs, education should occur in an interprofessional context. In turn, collaborative practice is when “multiple health professionals across various professions come together and collaborate to deliver high quality care” (World Health Organization, 2010, p. 10).


Research indicates the trafficked population accesses healthcare while being trafficked (Polaris, 2017).  This interaction provides a significant opportunity for healthcare workers to identify victims of trafficking.  The healthcare sector includes multiple professions functioning in their own area of expertise, while working as a team to achieve optimum client outcomes.

While a healthcare worker may believe something about a patient encounter is “not quite right”, he/she may not be able independently identify a trafficking victim.  To assist with identification, many healthcare organizations have developed a human trafficking response protocol to assist with victim identification. With a human trafficking response protocol, the healthcare worker can seek the assistance of a trauma trained social worker. If trafficking is identified, an interprofessional approach can assist with the patient’s care. Such an approach may include collaboration between law enforcement, legal counsel, immigration officials, social services, child welfare, mental health, and other continued medical care.  This massive coordination of care is difficult, but IPE can prepare professionals to work collaboratively within this framework to better serve clients, including trafficked victims.

The need to combat HT is paramount with healthcare workers having the potential to make a strong impact. Healthcare workers cannot efficiently care for the HT population without an educational underpinning.  The Knowles’ (1990) approach to adult learning is a sound foundation for IPE related to HT because of its focus on adult learning.  Knowles applies four principles to adult learning including that adults should be involved in planning and evaluation of learning, experience provides the foundation of learning activities, learn happens best when topics have direct application to the learner, and learning should be problem centered.

An interprofessional program

In the fall of 2014, discussion concerning an interprofessional program addressing the problem of human trafficking began on the campus of a Midwestern university.  Possible programs discussed were a minor and a certificate in human trafficking studies. The key decision makers agreed the program would be governed by one academic unit (for practical reasons), it would be considered an interprofessional endeavor and the courses would receive an IPE course designation. The stakeholders in the discussions identified the flexibility of the program as extremely important in order to meet the needs of residential and non-residential students.

The proposed plan is for a 12 credit undergraduate certificate program available to students in an online and onsite format. The program is open to any student in the university.  Courses within the certificate are designed to be relevant to all majors and not specific to one particular profession, such as social work or nursing.

The four courses in the certificate include Hope, Suffering and Human Trafficking; Universal Trafficking in Persons, Trauma-Informed Approaches, and Ethics and Advocacy in Human Trafficking. The courses will provide a broad base of trafficking content for interested interprofessional students. Once the human trafficking certificate program is approved and successful, the discussion of developing a minor in human trafficking will resume. This certificate program will supports the Interprofessional Education Collaborative’s (2018) mission to “promote, encourage and support efforts to prepare future health professionals so that they enter the workforce ready for interprofessional collaborative practice that helps to ensure the health of individuals and populations” (para. 2).

Stakeholders support this proposed program as an innovation in IPE for the university.  Currently, the proposed program is in the midst of the approval process within the School of Nursing. Once the program is approved, the next step will be to engage university faculty knowledgeable about human trafficking as course writers. The content will be developed so that students from various programs be simultaneously enrolled in courses and actively involved in interprofessional group projects. Each student will bring knowledge from their respective profession to the discussions/programs and formulate an interprofessional plan to meet the needs of the trafficking victim. The goal of the program is to prepare students to work as professionals in their role and function as part of an interprofessional team to improve client outcomes.



Kristina Currier & Rhonda Oldham
School of Nursing
Indiana Wesleyan University, US




Department of Homeland Security. (2018). Blue campaign. Retrieved from:

Global Slavery Index (2016). Global findings. Retrieved from:

International Labour Office. (2014). Profits and poverty: The economics of forced labour. Retrieved from:—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_243391.pdf

Interprofessional Education Collaborative. (2018). Vision and mission. Retrieved from:—mission.html

Knowles, M. (1990) The adult learner. A neglected species. (4th ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

World Health Organization. (2010). Framework for action on interprofessional education and collaborative practice. Retrieved from: