Photo: Jason Henry
Nadine Burke Harris
21st Heinz Awards - 2016
A pediatrician and the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., received the 21st Heinz Award for the Human Condition for addressing toxic stress in children, a significant, yet often unrecognized risk factor for chronic disease later in life.
Having dedicated her career to working with children from underserved communities, Dr. Burke Harris is transforming pediatric care by pioneering protocols to identify and treat the spiraling effects of toxic stress in children. Dr. Burke Harris was the founding physician of the Bayview Child Health Center (BCHC), established in San Francisco in 2007. After identifying Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress as a major health threat to her patients, Dr. Burke Harris created the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) in 2011 with a mission to prevent, screen and heal the impacts of ACEs and toxic stress.
Research has linked ACEs to a significantly increased risk of chronic disease later in life, including diabetes, asthma, kidney and heart disease, obesity, cancer, substance abuse, depression and suicide. Children who experience or witness violence or who are in environments that are neglectful or unsafe suffer from high levels of stress and fear. This trauma triggers the release of stress hormones, which in turn creates chemical reactions in the body and brain, affecting the immune and hormone systems. When stressful situations happen repeatedly and intensely, children’s bodies become overtaxed at a time when their brains, nervous systems and organs are still developing, causing long-term damage.
Together, BCHC and CYW are dedicated to offering pediatric care in conjunction with behavioral and mental health services essential to mitigating the damaging consequences of ACEs. Through the development of a life-saving screening tool to identify ACEs in young patients, Dr. Burke Harris is working to change the way pediatricians will diagnose and treat children suffering from toxic stress. Screening helps parents and caregivers identify and understand how early adversity may be affecting their child’s health, well-being and learning. The results then guide physicians in implementing the appropriate interventions, which include mindfulness and coping skills, nurse home visits, education and support for improving lifestyle choices for both children and their families, who may also be suffering from toxic stress.
Dr. Burke Harris is sharing her screening method with colleagues around the world, and to date the tools developed have been downloaded by nearly 1,000 clinicians from 15 countries, along with a set of recommendations for evidence-based interventions for parents and patients.
Through her clinical practice and ongoing efforts to raise awareness and educate other physicians, Dr. Burke Harris is transforming the practice of pediatric medicine, with protocols that can help prevent chronic disease and even early death.
Note: This profile was written at the time of the awards’ presentation.