A public health crisis
A public health crisis

A 2014 study published in Loyola University of Chicago’s journal, Annals of Health Law, reflected that nearly 88 percent of human trafficking victims in the United States saw a health care provider at some point during their captivity.

The figure — along with the haunting reality that so much pain and suffering could have been brought to a speedy end by a health care professional more adept at spotting the signs of abuse — is staggering to Lisa Johnson, DNP.

“That’s huge,” said Johnson, an assistant professor in Creighton University’s College of Nursing. “That is a public health crisis. As health care providers of the future, we need to be able to identify the red flags and offer the opportunity for safety. And it’s not just human trafficking. Violence across the lifespan — child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence — is a public health crisis. As health care professionals, we need to learn the signs and how to intervene.”

Toward that end, last year, Johnson was bestowed a Creighton Global Initiative grant to begin an interprofessional education program called Violence Across the Lifespan, a three-week passport program for Creighton students in all the health sciences. The course involves experts in forensic interviewing, law enforcement and social work, who are helping those health care providers of the future learn care strategies for patients who might be in dangerous life situations.

Johnson is the principal investigator on the grant, which comprises a seven-member faculty team representing the College of Nursing, the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions and the School of Dentistry.

After two rounds of the course — one last fall and another this spring — more than 170 Creighton health sciences students have taken part in the course. The focus on human trafficking, child abuse and neglect, and intimate partner violence provided students with concrete options on intervening in potentially abusive situations.

Angela Patterson, OTD, OTR/L, an assistant professor of occupational therapy in the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, said the germ of the course came out of experiences students and faculty have had in community settings like the Porto Urgent Care Clinic, where Creighton students participate in giving care.

“There were instances when we’ve been treating a patient for an injury and they’d say, ‘Well, my husband has abused me for years,’” Patterson said. “What do you do when someone tells you that? What are the resources available? Sometimes, as health care professionals, we see ourselves as treating the injury and not having more to say than that. But if we’re truly treating the whole person, we need to be able to recognize if there’s violence occurring in their lives. And, recognizing it, now working on doing something about it.”

The recent attention on human trafficking, Johnson said, is a welcome means to helping combat it. But, she added, child abuse and neglect, as well as intimate partner violence can also be seen in doctor’s offices, dentist’s chairs, nurse’s rounds.

“There’s a paradigm that a primary care physician is the one who can most easily do something about an abusive situation,” said Johnson, who came to Creighton two years ago after more than two decades working as a forensic nurse specialist. “But I know that a dentist can look into a person’s mouth and determine injuries caused by abuse. Moreover, not everyone you see is going to have a primary-care physician. You may be the one. And the patient puts their trust in us. We need to know what to do with that information they give us.”

The CGI grant is helping the Violence Across the Lifespan course not only educate Creighton students but, in turn, giving the students the opportunity to spread the message in the clinics where they serve and with the professionals they encounter.

“We’re hoping it generates conversation that generates a closer look at how we’re caring for the whole person,” Patterson said. “Too often, we think we’re not going to encounter a case of abuse or trafficking. But if it’s in the clinics where we are, we know it’s in the wider population. It’s a matter of asking the right questions and being open to what a patient will entrust to you, then finding an effective course of action.”

Patterson and Johnson will disseminate information on the work of the Violence Across the Lifespan course prior to an April 5 human trafficking panel sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Women. They also hope what they’ve created in the course could be useful to other health sciences educators.

“We want to continue to communicate this as far and as wide as we can,” Johnson said. “That’s the global nature of this. The more we spread the awareness, the better off we are in trying to bring an end to the violence.”