By Diane Weidner, Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning

How can health care providers help to identify, treat and advocate for victims of human trafficking?

This question was discussed at the Royal College Simulation Summit, an annual forum that invites health professionals from across Canada to share ideas, explore cutting edge research and accelerate best practices in simulation-based education.

This ground-breaking plenary panel brought together an interprofessional team from health care, education and law enforcement to discuss the role of health care providers in human trafficking and to think about how we can use simulation to help address this social justice issue.

Sex trafficking… what you need to know

Left to right: Diane Veillette, Josée Mensales, Françoise Filion, Niki Soilis
Photo credit: Laina Brown Photography

Human trafficking is often described as a modern form of slavery.  It is the fastest growing crime in the world and involves using forms of violence and/or manipulation to exercise control over another person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour. Human trafficking victims often suffer from emotional trauma as well as economic, physical and sexual abuse.

We may think that most sex trafficking victims are smuggled here from overseas, but that is a myth. Human trafficking is a lot closer to home than you may think.  The statistics are staggering: over 90% of victims in Canada are domestic and over 50% are Indigenous[i]; furthermore, almost 40% of victims are minors[ii]. Sex traffickers have adapted to modern times and will often recruit their victims through social media, targeting vulnerable youth by creating common links to gain trust and offering enticing invitations that promise glamour, adventure and escape.

Josée Mensales and Diane Veillette, both police officers, co-founded the Survivors Program of the Sexual Exploitation-Human Trafficking Investigation Unit of the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM) over a decade ago because they wanted to create an approach that would support and give a voice to victims while building partnerships and raising awareness of human trafficking.

In 2015, they were invited to present at a community nursing course taught by Françoise Filion, Assistant Professor at McGill University’s Ingram School of Nursing, to help sensitize students and educate them on how to help identify and advocate for victims of human trafficking.

Why it’s so important to educate health care professionals

Over 80% of human trafficking victims will seek medical assistance during their captivity[iii], but the majority of health care professionals are not able to identify them due to lack of knowledge and training.

“Sex trafficking victims may be brought to emergency rooms or clinics, so it’s important that our frontline health care professionals are well-trained to detect the signs,” explains Professor Filion. “For example, some common red flags might include branding tattoos behind the patient’s ears, between the fingers or near the genitals; they may not possess identification documents, or they may be accompanied by an individual who speaks for them and refuses to leave their side.”

Engaging through simulation

Realizing value in training, Professor Filion approached the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning (SCSIL) at McGill University to develop scenarios with standardized patients based on real-life encounters to engage emotional and cognitive learning. The goal was to allow students to practice communications skills in a safe environment so that they would be better equipped to detect and help victims in a real clinical setting.

Niki Soilis, Education Manager at the SCSIL supported this project and helped to bring this to a wider audience through a public webinar held in January 2019. The team is also collaborating with the Canadian Alliance of Medical Students Against Human Trafficking (CAMSAHT) to amplify the message.

“Good education changes what you do, really good education changes how you think, and great education fundamentally shapes who you are,” says Dr. Farhan Bhanji, Director of Education at the SCSIL. “I believe that simulation-based education has the potential to change who we are.”

A very important aspect of this educational initiative is the patient (survivor) voice.  Courageous survivors from the SPVM Survivors Program were invited to share their stories and talk about their interactions with the health care system in order to help guide health care professionals. This was shared during a video at the Royal College plenary panel.

“We had the privilege of working with these survivors.  To see them overcome such tremendous challenges and thrive… it really changes you,” expressed officer Mensales. “We hope that this will motivate you to become leaders in your community on this issue.”

[i] Grant, Tavia, “Missing and Murdered: The Trafficked”, The Globe and Mail, February 10, 2016,
[ii] Gamache, Valérie « Commission sur l’exploitation sexuelle : entre répression et sensibilisation », La Presse, November 4, 2019.
[iii] Leslie, J. (2018). Human Trafficking: Clinical assessment guidelines. Journal of Trauma Nursing, 25(5), 282-289.

Stoklosa H, Grace A, Littenberg N. Medical education on human trafficking. AMA J Ethics. 2015;17(10):914-921

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