California Governor Names Nadine Burke Harris as State’s First-Ever Surgeon General

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a San Francisco pediatrician who has helped popularize adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) named pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pioneer in the study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), as the state’s first surgeon general on Monday.

Burke Harris is the founder of the San Francisco-based clinic Center for Youth Wellness, serving as its CEO for the past six years.

“Governor Newsom’s vision to address healthcare from a preventive, rather than reactive, frame reflects a keen appreciation of the latest science as well as a deep commitment to the health of California children and families,” said Dr. Burke Harris in a press release. “I am honored to serve in this capacity and will work hard to support the health of all Californians.”

A landmark 1997 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente of more than 17,000 adult patients found that incidents of childhood trauma presented health risks for people later in life. Burke Harris created a screening tool for pediatricians to detect ACEs, helping them interpret the results and direct children and caregivers to appropriate treatment services. These ACEs screening tools typically ask about experiences involving physical abuse, substance abuse, poverty and mental illness.

Burke Harris has also played a big role in bringing the science of ACEs to a wider audience. In 2016 she was awarded the Heinz Award for the Human Condition, and last year, her book about ACEs, “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity,” was featured on NPR and at the New York Times.

A September 2014 Ted Talk she gave, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime,” has been viewed nearly 5 million times.

Three states currently have a position similar to a surgeon general, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Pennsylvania was the first state to create a physician general position in 1996. Over the next decade, Michigan, Florida and Arkansas also followed suit, though Michigan did away with the position in 2010.

Newsom’s appointment of Burke Harris comes on the heels of his opening budget proposal, which includes several proposed investments in early intervention and prevention supports and services. Newsom called for $60 million to offer early developmental screenings for children in next year’s budget “[t]o strengthen preventive services and better address the social determinants of health.”

He also set aside $45 million to identify ACEs among children and adults involved in the state’s Medicaid program. The state’s Department of Health Care Services would provide screenings to everyone on MediCal younger than 65 at least once every three years, beginning in January 2020.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 353 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at