Vulnerable Population: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that children and the elderly are both considered vulnerable populations? In this lesson, we will learn all about vulnerable population from examples.


Vulnerable population is a term that is used to describe a group of people who possess some sort of disadvantage. But what does that really mean?


Tracy is a senior researcher at a medical company. Her research lab has just finished synthesizing its first drug geared toward treating cancer symptoms in children. Tracy wants to test her drug on patients, however there are many steps that Tracy is required by law to take before she can begin testing her drugs on actual children. Tracy doesn't understand why there are more restrictions in research involving children, that is, until Tracy's boss explains that children are considered a vulnerable population.

What Makes a Population Vulnerable?

Like other vulnerable populations, children have less resources and less power than other groups of individuals. Children do not possess the means to protect themselves from risks, nor can they promote their own interests. For example, children do not yet have the knowledge or foresight to predict or understand the risks that are associated with participating in Tracy's human trials. Children also have a higher risk of being harmed than most other populations. Let's look at some of the areas of risk associated with vulnerable populations. It is important to note that it is possible for a population to be vulnerable due to high risks in multiple areas.

Physical Risk

There are certain populations who are considered vulnerable because they have a high level of physical needs. This, in turn, creates a higher level of physical risk. The population may lack the resources that they need to meet the physical needs, which can create a situation where the population can easily be harmed or taken advantage of. For example, pregnant women have many needs compared to other populations, including increased access to quality health care, increased contact with their physicians or midwives, and environmental modifications to support a healthy pregnancy. Pregnant women, fetuses, children, people in comas, and people with chronic illnesses such as HIV are examples of vulnerable populations with high physical needs. Other people in this category might be the elderly and and persons with a physical challenge or disability.

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