Combatting Human Trafficking

Human trafficking affects an estimated 25 million people worldwide.

Barbara Petroff, M.S., R.Ph., FASHP, FNHIA
Barbara Petroff, M.S., R.Ph., FASHP, FNHIA

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have great opportunities to combat human trafficking — but they need to educate themselves about the problem, says Barbara Petroff, principal at the pharmacy consulting firm Shawler Petroff LLC in Livonia, Michigan.

“We really do not know how many victims there are. But there are hundreds of thousands,” said Petroff, the featured speaker for the Dec. 7 ASHP Midyear session “The Role of Pharmacy in Combatting Human Trafficking.”

Human trafficking involves the use of force or coercion to exploit a person for labor or commercial sex. The crime, described as a modern version of slavery, affects an estimated 25 million people worldwide. The U.S. Department of State reports that trafficking occurs in all U.S. states and territories.

Petroff noted that all states have laws to combat human trafficking, and more than a dozen states, including Michigan, recommend or require that healthcare providers undergo some type of training on trafficking.

Petroff urged all pharmacists to familiarize themselves with state and local resources, as well as the National Human Trafficking Hotline, to learn how to safely intervene if they encounter a patient who may be a victim of human trafficking.

“Establish a plan. Get educated,” she said. “Try to connect with the victim and connect them with the local resources.”

People who are vulnerable to trafficking include runaways and youths in child welfare and juvenile justice systems; American Indians and Alaska Natives, particularly women and girls; migrant laborers; people with limited English proficiency; and LGBTQI+ persons.

Petroff said traffickers prey on people they can influence and control, and there’s no single profile that fits all victims. She said many people who are trafficked are simply looking for a better life.

She urged pharmacists to be alert for their patients’ nonverbal cues, such as having another person answer health questions, that could indicate the patient is under someone else’s control.

Petroff offered screening questions for pharmacy staff to use if they suspect trafficking and can speak safely and privately with the potential victim. These include:

  • Can you leave your job or situation if you want?
  • Have you been threatened if you try to leave?
  • Do you have to ask permission to eat, sleep, use the bathroom?
  • Is anyone forcing you to do something you don’t want to do?

“We’ve got to ask questions ... [though] they sometimes can be very difficult to ask,” Petroff acknowledged.

And she emphasized that as pharmacists take on greater ambulatory care responsibilities, they are more likely to be in a position to help trafficking victims.

“We don’t just count and pour,” she said. “We do drug therapy management, we do disease state management.”

For AJHP resources on violence prevention in healthcare, see Formalizing the Profession’s Commitment to Preventing Violence and Professional Policies Approved by the 2020 ASHP House of Delegates.