A key focus of health care delivery in the past several years has been on understanding and addressing how non-medical factors impact an individual’s health – a concept referred to as social determinants of health (SDOH). Though much attention over the past year and a half has been focused on the pandemic and its immediate effects, we cannot forget about other health and social issues that continue to have significant and enduring impacts on people’s lives. An emerging approach to combating lasting effects of early trauma centers on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic incidents that occur before individuals are 18 years old, categorized into three domains: abuse, neglect, and household challenges.[1,2] These experiences are prevalent — a recent report indicated that over 60% of California adults have experienced at least one ACE, and over 16% have experienced four or more ACEs[3] — and are linked with detrimental, cross-generational outcomes 

ACEs are crucial to address because they can spark a toxic stress response that causes long-term health, behavioral health, and social issues well into adulthood.  ACEs are associated with chronic health issues (e.g., heart disease, cancer, diabetes), mental illness (e.g., depression), and substance use disorders. Additionally, ACEs can negatively influence education and job potential as well as contribute to difficulties in forming healthy and/or stable relationships. The impacts of ACEs also stretch beyond the individual level, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars per year in economic and social costs.[1] While ACEs have significant and far-reaching repercussions, they are preventable and can be addressed through early screening and appropriate trauma-informed care.[1,2] This type of care takes a patient’s full life situation (including the ACEs that they have experienced) into account, understanding trauma’s extensive impacts, recognizing signs and symptoms of trauma, and folding knowledge of trauma into policies and procedures.[4] In California, the Office the California Surgeon General (CA-OSG) and the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) are spearheading an initiative called ACEs Aware, which is promoting collaboration across sectors to prevent, screen for, treat, and heal the impacts of ACEs and toxic stress.[5] Since 2020, ACEs Aware has awarded 185 grants totaling over $45 million to organizations throughout California.[6] 

The ACEs Aware initiative highlights communities’ strong need for increased data sharing and interoperability, especially between clinical EHR-based systems and tools used by community-based organizations (CBOs) to provide the non-clinical services central to trauma-informed care. SDOH have extensive impacts, and the ability to exchange health and social services data across disparate systems is crucial to addressing SDOH and improving the health and well-being of individuals and communities. This need for more robust, cross-sector data sharing is reflected in nationwide efforts to expand beyond health information exchanges (HIEs) and focus on a more holistic view of care with community information exchanges (CIEs) – a prevalent theme at this year’s SHIEC conference that I attended (check out this recent blog post from my colleague, Alex Horowitz, to learn more). Through a CIE, members of a care team can access integrated data from multiple sources (e.g., housing providers, food banks, primary care providers), make bi-directional referrals, and establish a longitudinal record to provide more person-centered care.[7] While this level of data sharing is instrumental for trauma-informed care, many barriers stand in the way: 

  • It is challenging and time-intensive to establish a bi-directional referral system in a community, with the need to consider complex issues such as data governance, privacy, and interoperability; 

  • It is imperative (though not always done) to engage with community stakeholders early to assess their needs and readiness for change, as CBOs often face additional challenges in implementing a new IT system (e.g., lack of resources, being burdened with several different reporting systems and requirements); 

  • For ACEs specifically, communities must consider more thorny uses cases, as data is often sensitive (e.g., data from minors, substance use data, psychotherapy notes) and requires special considerations around consent and data sharing. 

At Intrepid Ascent, we’ve recently had the opportunity to learn more about ACEs and the work being done through the ACEs Aware Initiative by partnering with Aurrera Health Group, the technical assistance provider for ACEs Aware grantees. We have additionally been working directly with one of the grantees, Mind OC (non-profit backbone of Be Well OC), as they implement a closed-loop referral system to support ACEs screening and treatment across a trauma-informed network of care. Our firm has also been working closely with different communities to develop policy and technology solutions that support cross-sector data sharing and a collaborative approach to care delivery – work that has been greatly enhanced by the ACEs Aware initiative.    

The focus on reducing the impact of ACEs aligns with larger delivery system reform efforts like CalAIM, a DHCS initiative to change the way Medi-Cal provides and pays for certain services.[8] CalAIM seeks to address the impacts of trauma and SDOH by focusing on the clinical and non-clinical needs of high-risk beneficiaries through comprehensive and interdisciplinary care. This initiative also encourages Managed Care Plans (MCPs) to provide flexible, wrap-around services (e.g., housing transition navigation services, sobering centers, medically tailored meals) that can act as a substitute for other covered services (e.g., hospital care, nursing facility care, emergency department use). MCPs will increasingly need to rely upon referral platforms and engage in community-based closed-loop referrals for both clinical and non-clinical services to meet CalAIM requirements. This in turn will contribute to a larger push for interoperability among EHRs and CBO-facing IT systems. Although not a specific goal of the initiative, CalAIM will therefore work in alignment with ACEs Aware to address SDOH, promote interoperability, and contribute to the shift from traditional clinical-led health information exchange toward community-wide care coordination and data exchange – shifts that are all crucial to screening for, addressing, and ultimately preventing ACEs. 

 1 CDC. “Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences.” https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/fastfact.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fviolenceprevention%2Facestudy%2Ffastfact.html 

2 ACEs Aware. “ACEs Aware Trauma-Informed Network of Care Roadmap.” June 2021. https://www.acesaware.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Aces-Aware-Network-of-Care-Roadmap.pdf 

3 California Department of Public Health. “Adverse Childhood Experiences Data Report: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), 2011 – 2017. Oct 2020.” https://www.pacesconnection.com/g/california-aces-action/fileSendAction/fcType/0/fcOid/509387504523927863/filePointer/509387504523928034/fodoid/509387504521175235/ACEs-BRFSS-Data-Report.pdf  

4 Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. “What Is Trauma-Informed Care.” https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma-informed-care/ 

5 ACEs Aware. “About.” https://www.acesaware.org/about/  

6 ACEs Aware. “Community Grant Program Information.” https://www.acesaware.org/grants/grant-program-information/  

7 CIE San Diego. “What is CIE?” https://ciesandiego.org/what-is-cie/  

8 DHCS. “CalAIM Executive Summary and Summary of Changes.” Feb 2021. https://www.dhcs.ca.gov/provgovpart/Documents/CalAIM-Executive-Summary-02172021.pdf