There’s a clear need for medical students, residents, and healthcare providers across disciplines to be informed on human trafficking, but there are no formal requirements for psychiatrists to be educated on this, a recent paper concluded.1

“This was a recognition of the horrors of human trafficking, and a determination to aim to do something about it even in some very small way,” says John H. Coverdale, MD, the paper’s lead author. Coverdale is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“The outrage that we experience when coming across a victim about how they have been treated drives us to aim to make a difference,” says Coverdale.

Another motivator was that the paper’s authors realized there was a lack of literature on this topic in psychiatric and educational journals. “This dearth of literature perhaps reflects a lack of teaching about how to recognize victims, and about the related ethical issues,” Coverdale suggests.

Clinicians may be conflicted between the patient’s wish not to involve the police or authorities, and the provider’s desire to get those agencies involved. “Issues around confidentiality then are one of the challenges that physicians confront,” says Coverdale. Healthcare organizations should ensure that providers have the support necessary to manage these situations on a case-by-case basis, he recommends.

Another ethical concern is that physicians may view human trafficking victims negatively or less than compassionately, labelling them as prostitutes. “Physicians may eschew a careful and thorough inquiry into their specific social circumstances and sexual histories, or not take seriously the possibility that they may be trafficked,” says Coverdale.

Victims’ stories can be very painful and distressing to hear. “Bioethicists should be available to assist the multidisciplinary teams in working through these challenges, and manage the emotional responses that have the potential to undermine treatment,” says Coverdale.


  1. Coverdale J, Beresin EV, Louie AK, et al. Human trafficking and psychiatric education: A call to action. Academic Psychiatry 2016; 40(1):119-123.


  • John H. Coverdale, MD, Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Menninger Department of Psychiatry and the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. Phone: (713) 798-4887. Email: