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California’s first surgeon general settles in

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California's first surgeon general. (Photo: UC Davis Health Magazine)

California’s head cheerleader on improving statewide health says it’s all about “bringing people together.”

And after almost a year on the job as the state’s first surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris exudes optimism, saying she has enjoyed an “absolutely phenomenal outpouring of support” from various factions of California’s vast health care sector. 

Harris, 44, a San Francisco Democrat, is a nationally recognized expert on the effects that childhood trauma (Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs) has on victims during their entire lives – even into old age. She was appointed to the position in January by Gov. Gavin Newsom. California is the fourth state to have a surgeon general, joining Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Florida. Michigan eliminated the position in 2o10.

The surgeon general position is Newsom’s brainchild, although the specifics of the job are vague. Harris is sort of an advocate and promoter of the administration’s health care policies.

Separating children from their parents, as has been the practice for illegal immigrants scooped up by federal authorities along the U.S.-Mexico border, “is a recipe for childhood stress,” she told a recent gathering of the Sacramento Press Club.  She supports state Atty. General Xavier Becerra’s legal moves against the practice.

In her press club appearance, Harris was careful not to stray outside generally accepted tenants of health care. She and her husband, for instance, have seen to it that all four of their children are vaccinated, not only for the children’s health, but to protect others and gain “herd immunity.”

She also took pains not to create any blaring headlines. Asked specifically whether she supported “Medicare for All,” she said “Access to care is critical, no matter how it happens” and she was willing to “leave it to my policy colleagues as to how to get there.”

The surgeon general position is Newsom’s brainchild, although the specifics of the job are vague.

Harris is sort of an advocate and promoter of the administration’s health care policies. The heavy lifting in California health care, however, is performed by the 16 departments — including the Department of Health Care Services, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Managed Health Care under the jurisdiction of the Health and Human Services Agency. A major player also is Covered California, the state’s entity that puts into effect the federal Affordable Care Act.

Harris, who has a Master’s Degree in public health from Harvard, a medical degree from UC Davis and served a residency at Stanford, is the founding CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW)

In the Jan. 21 news release announcing Harris’s appointment, Newson said Harris “will urge policymakers at every level of government and leaders across the state to consider the social determinants of health, especially for children. Her work will focus on combating the root causes of serious health conditions — like adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress — and using the platform of Surgeon General to reach young families across the state.”

Harris, who has a Master’s Degree in public health from Harvard, a medical degree from UC Davis and served a residency at Stanford, is the founding CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW), a group Newsom described as a “national leader in the effort to advance pediatric medicine, raise public awareness, and transform the way society responds to children exposed to adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress.” 

She heads the Bay Area Research Consortium on Toxic Stress and Health, a partnership between CYW and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, to advance scientific screening and treatment of toxic stress, and serves as a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ National Advisory Board for Screening and on a committee for the National Academy of Medicine.

Capitol types involved in health care issues have questions.

Will Harris lobby for particular solutions to health care costs? On drug abuse? What about her relationship with the big Department or Public Health? Will there be an occasion where she might engage in head-to-head conflict with the Trump Administration, a la Becerra? (Early indications are she won’t.) Just how much clout will the engaging and idealistic Harris have within the Administration and with the Legislature?

“We are in a critical inflection point,” Harris told a gathering at the south san Francisco campus of Genentech during a discussion about the impacts of childhood trauma and adverse experiences. “Eight years ago, I would go into a room of 1,000 people and and I’d ask, “How many folks have heard of this before?” Literally three hands would go up. Two years ago, I gave a talk at the White House and I asked the same question, and every hand in the room went up. A new generation of scientists, teachers, doctors — people across disciplines — are recognizing the science, and leading the way.

“So, I believe that 20 years from now, we are going to be having a totally different conversation,”  she said


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