UC Berkeley alumna Nadine Burke Harris appointed state’s 1st surgeon general

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris poses in her white coat, in a medical examination room.
Robin Twomey/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley alumna Nadine Burke Harris will serve as California’s first state surgeon general, appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 21.

A leading figure in pediatric medicine, Burke Harris will focus on legislation to combat causes of health conditions among children and use her platform to reach California families. She will be sworn in Feb. 11 in Sacramento.

“As Surgeon General, Dr. Burke Harris will urge policymakers at every level of government and leaders across the state to consider the social determinants of health, especially for children,” Newsom said in a press release.

Burke Harris is the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, or CYW, which aims to improve the health of children exposed to toxic stress and trauma known as adverse childhood experiences. She is also the leader of the Bay Area Research Consortium on Toxic Stress and Health, a partnership between the CYW and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital that furthers scientific screening and treatment of toxic stress.

UC Berkeley School of Public Health dean emeritus Stephen Shortell said in an email that the position of state surgeon general is not necessary, but rather an “outmoded title.” Shortell instead called for “strong effective people” to serve as U.S. secretary of health and human services and as director of the state health department.

“Having said that, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a superb choice and I believe she will use the position as a platform to advocate for the importance of addressing the social determinants of health, particularly in underserved communities and with children,” Shortell said in the email.

Campus public health professor Barbara Abrams said she was excited about Burke Harris’ appointment, adding that Burke Harris is the “perfect person” for the position.

Though Burke Harris will serve as California’s first surgeon general, some states, including Florida, Michigan and Arkansas, have already established this position. Abrams said she believes the California surgeon general position has just now been created because health disparities are increasing, and there is a growing consensus that to reduce them, the disparities in social determinants must be addressed.

“Looking forward to rolling up my sleeves as CA’s first Surgeon General,” Burke Harris said in a tweet. “Thank you @GavinNewsom for your bold vision for health for all Californians.”

Burke Harris will serve as a key leader in Newsom’s administration to better the lives of young children, according to the press release. Among Newsom’s priorities is “creating inclusive economic growth and opportunity for every child,” according to his website.

“We at CYW feel that Dr. Burke Harris’s appointment to this historic role is a huge step for our state in reducing inequities and barriers to care,” CYW said in a statement. “We are seeing Dr. Burke Harris’s dream of universal screening coming to life in real time and we hope you will join us in our excitement as we usher in a new era in preventive care.”

Contact Julie Madsen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.