Shifting the focus from trauma to compassion

Dr. Arnd Herz

Dr. Arnd Herz, a self-described champion for ACEs science, would like nothing more than to witness a greater appreciation of how widespread adverse childhood experiences are. Herz, a pediatrician and director of Medi-Cal Strategy for the Greater Southern Alameda Area for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, would also like to encourage more people in health care to engage in a trauma-informed care approach, a change in practice that he says not only benefits patients, but also health care providers and their staff.

“It makes so much sense,” say Herz. “This is why I went into medicine. I don’t want to just click off diagnoses, but create relationships and help people by understanding them better, and trauma-informed care is just a way to bring compassion back into the care that we do.”

For the uninitiated, a trauma-informed approach includes an awareness that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are common, knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma, creating a safe environment where the focus is on “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”, engaging trauma survivors as equal decision-makers in their care, and offering patients referrals to supportive services as needed, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and a primer by the Center for Health Care Strategies.

In practice, Herz describes how clinicians use a trauma-informed approach to forge closer ties with patients and at the same time discover how ACEs may lurk beneath the surface of a health condition.

“I see so many children who really struggle with obesity at a young age,” explains Herz, who is based at Kaiser Permanente in Hayward, Calif., which is testing ACEs screening of children from 12 months through 5 years old in a three-year pilot study that began in 2016. He says that he sees many patients whose weight and height are on par for a number of years and then suddenly veer off course as a child begins gaining weight. “I’ll ask ‘What happened?’, and sometimes it’s that the grandmother has moved in and is overfeeding the child,” explains Herz. But often there’s another explanation.

“I pointed to the growth curve and asked ‘What happened two and a half years ago?’ And the mom said, ‘Dad came back from jail and is living with us,’” reports Herz as he cites the case of one patient. And he didn’t stop there — he wanted to find out how the mom and the child experienced the father’s return. “And I looked at her and said, ‘So, it’s been stressful?’ And she said yes.”

“And rather than talking to her about removing the sodas, and exercising more and removing the junk food,” continues Herz, “I talked to her about the stress and how can we make things feel better, because the weight gain was in response to stress.” Herz made sure they were safe and when the mother expressed interest, helped her and the child link up with a psychologist for additional support.

“If I just talked about cutting out soda and junk food, it wouldn’t have any effect, and it’s very satisfying as a physician to feel like I really understand what’s going on in this family.”

Herz is well aware that part of his own comfort in asking those kinds of question is also because he knows his patients won’t be stranded without help; there are social workers and therapists in their pediatric clinic who can take the conversation further.

The question of comfort in asking patients deeper questions brings up another significant point for Herz: What are some ways that the practice of engaging with patients using a trauma-informed care approach could have a broader reach?

Herz has made a case for doing so in an essay he wrote entitled Compassion-infused Care.

Why the use of the term “compassion-infused care”? Herz suggests that the term may have greater appeal to a wider swath of health care providers.

“What struck me early on was that most people who talk about trauma-Informed care do it in public health clinics that serve Medi-Cal  [Medicaid] patients, the very extremes, the really traumatized populations. And I thought in many ways [the term] trauma-informed care carries stigma,” said Herz. “I haven’t had people say they don’t want to do it. It’s just my hunch.”

In the essay, Herz notes how trauma-informed approaches to care have been implemented throughout such organizations, including San Francisco’s Department of Public Health and Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Herz also suggests that the concept of compassion-infused care more clearly captures an important part of what makes practicing medicine fulfilling to clinicians and thus might better emphasize how a trauma-informed care approach serves as an antidote to physician burnout, a problem experienced by some 42 percent of 15,000 physicians surveyed, according to a 2018 Medscape report.

“In health care these days, particularly in primary care, it’s very easy to get into the rhythm of ok, I have to see a patient every 15 minutes, I have to come up with specific codes for the billing piece of it. I have to come up with the right diagnosis and give the patient something so they feel satisfied at the end of the visit, and complete the computer coding and move on to the next patient,” explains Herz. “To me that’s at the core of physician burnout, that it becomes routine, and move on and it’s a high stress environment.”

With the right knowledge, tools and resources for dealing with trauma, explains Herz, trauma-informed care adds depth to relationships with patients. And by highlighting compassion, he says, “What I’m hoping is that will become a concept that is even more mainstream, that large health care organizations, including my own, embrace — that we want to become a compassion-infused organization.”

“I may be wrong, but I’m thinking it’s easier to say: ‘We’re going to become a compassion-infused organization rather than a trauma-informed organization’. One is a more positive image that we’re going to increase our compassion. The other is a more threatening image that we have a more traumatized population that we take care of.”


  1. 2.22.2019 (Friday)

    To Whom It May Concern:

    I am 60, years old. I grew up, like most, in some form of child abuse or domestic violence. Except, back then, it wasn’t called that. It was hidden out of plain sight. My story, may be explained as simply as this; I look exactly like my biological father. My mother Never stopped Loving him. So, Everytime me mother would look toward my direction, the sight of me would remind her of this loss. I am leaving a few facts out. Excuse me, I apologise. I was not informed about my biological father until I happened to be rummaging through photos in Grandparents filing cabinet and found a single Poloraid instant color photograph of him. You see it suddenly sent shivers up my spine, for I was instantly aware, I looked as devilishly hansdome as he was, me 17 years old looking upon this photo of someone who looked like me!? No note, no memo on the photo. This is the start of my unexpected connection to ACE’s. I would not come in contact with the why of the study until i was 58 yrs. old, in Amarillo, Texas. For most of my young + adult + now, older lifehood; I have always physically + mentally enjoyed a feeling or compulsion, drive or passion from when we or I was exposed to the violence that my mother received at the hands of my biological father. Why have I promised God my faith at 15 years of age. I have lived my entire life without Alcohol, Cigarettes, Drugs of any kind. If my father could strike my mother within an inch of her life, on two separate occasions; then how would he explain this to me later in life as it was her fault he had to hit her? There is no excuse or lie to give purpose to this act! I knew this at 17 years old, I had no memory of him in my life and did not need to have memory of that, at all!
    I lived my first five years with my Grandparents, who made me who I am, today. I am, so very lucky. To much is given, much is expected, as it is said in The Bible. Shalom.
    Neal Harville, MS,MS,BS,BS.


  2. Learning and teaching simple resilience skills can be easily folded into health care, especially when a referral to a mental health provider might be too much due to time, money, etc. Look up traumaresourceinstitute for trainings. It is amazing to teach skills right in your office, or explain the importance of following up with counseling. Thank you for your info. Karen

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android


  3. Excellent article. Thank you for helping me out with this. I need a living kidney donor and have suffered a right foot amputation. Sometimes it’s hard to find happiness when things are not going your way.

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  4. … all of which will likely decrease the patient load because of the mere fact that people/patients, whether they recognize it or not, need to be heard. It’s not a revelation, but a reminder; that an authentic and compassionate conversation can itself maximize the potential for healing.


  5. If Dr. Arnd really wants to practice with compassion, I wholeheartedly recommend he and his staff learn all they can and practice mediating The Cell Danger Response (look up Drs. Robert Naviaux and Veronique Mead) and The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory – Dr. Steve Porges). It virtually impossible to feel and demonstrate compassion when our nervous systems are subject to sympathetic stress or dorsal vagal shutdown.


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