California’s first surgeon general prioritizes children and addressing health disparities

From the Southern California News Group

By Deepa Bharath 

Addressing the adverse physical and mental repercussions of childhood trauma has been the highlight of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s career as a pediatrician. And it’s an issue that will take center stage during her tenure as California’s first-ever surgeon general.

Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Burke Harris in January soon after he unveiled several health initiatives during his inaugural address, including expanding health care coverage and lowering prescription drug costs.

Only three other states — Pennsylvania, Florida and Arkansas — have a surgeon general. Michigan was the first state to appoint a surgeon general in 2003, but eliminated the position seven years later.

Burke Harris, 43, whose family is from Kingston, Jamaica, moved to the United States when she was 4 and grew up in Palo Alto. She received her medical degree from UC Davis, master’s degree in public health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and served her residency at Stanford in pediatrics.

Burke Harris, whose career has been focused on treating children suffering with toxic stress, founded the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco in 2007. She also has written a book on the topic titled “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.” She was the founding physician and first medical director of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, where she helped develop a clinical model which recognizes the impact of adverse experiences to effectively treat toxic stress in children.

Her TED Talk in 2014, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” has more than 5 million views.

On Friday, April 5, Burke Harris stopped by Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange as part of her multi-city listening tour across the state. She talked to the Southern California News Group about her role and priorities as the state’s first surgeon general.

How do you view your role as the state’s first-ever surgeon general?

I view my role as a public health advocate. It’s a non-partisan role. That said, we are also in a time when health care is under attack. Science is under attack. Vulnerable communities are under attack. We have a lot of challenges before us. My role is to bring the strongest science, evidence and expertise. I intend to use my role, the bully pulpit, to shine the light on important health care issues that could change lives and improve outcomes for children and families.

What will your role be in addressing the issue of the uninsured in California?

The administration is taking an ambitious stance in addressing the uninsured issue and is pushing back on encroachments on the Affordable Care Act. I will be an expert adviser to the administration on this issue. I’ll be a partner.

What are some of your top priorities?

My hope is to be able to mobilize partnerships not just in the medical community, but the community at large, with everyday Californians. My number one area of focus will be adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. My next important issue is early childhood development — providing kids and families with support systems. When we invest in early childhood, it pays big dividends later. My third biggest issue is health equity. We currently have unacceptable disparities in our own state.

Why has childhood trauma been such an important issue for you?

I have been an advocate in this area for a long time. There is no question that early detection and early intervention result in better outcomes. California passed AB 340 requiring trauma screening for all children who have Medi-Cal. But, it needs to be better enforced. I would like to lead the charge to implement universal trauma screening for children and adults. Toxic stress is preventable, but only when we detect and identify it. It’s treatable. But, the problem is, because it’s so familiar, people think they know how the story goes. It’s hard for them to think how the story could be different.

Are you optimistic about the future and about finding solutions to these challenges?

Yes, I am. California has it all. We have a wealth of expertise in data and technological infrastructure. We have folks who are really committed to doing right by vulnerable communities. We have a governor who has made health care a top priority. We have the opportunities, resources and leadership. This is a good time to be a public health advocate in California.