ACEs: What You’re Not Asking Patients and How Their Answers Affects Care

Connie Gayle White, MD, MS, FACOG is an ACOG member and practiced as an OB/GYN physician in Frankfort, Kentucky for over 20 years.  She is currently the Senior Deputy Commissioner in the Kentucky Department for Public Health (KDPH) overseeing all the clinical services provided by the Department throughout the state – all chronic disease programs, women’s health services, maternal child health, and overseeing development of new programs. Read her guest blog post below. 

I once had a patient who smoked cigarettes. Over the years I treated her, I diligently counseled her on the harmful effects of smoking and gave her resources to help her quit. Yet every visit she returned a smoker. One day, I casually asked why she started smoking. She confided to me that she began smoking at the age of 10 because her father hated the smell of tobacco. She knew if she smelled like smoke he wouldn’t come into her room to assault her at night. She then revealed she had taught her younger 8 year old sister to smoke too. Tearfully, she asked if she was a bad sister. I had of course taught her all about the consequences of smoking and now she worried she had inadvertently put her sister’s health at risk. Instead of helping her, I had retraumatized her each year because I hadn’t known anything about ACEs.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful traumatic events occurring in childhood — such as physical, emotional, or verbal abuse or neglect against any member within a household, or other forms of violence and household dysfunction — can interrupt healthy social-emotional development in children, and their consequences are more far-reaching than most physicians may realize. The first two years of a child’s life are a critical period wherein the brain is hardwired for social-emotional development. Secure attachment stemming from a nurturing, consistent relationship with a caregiver is the foundation of healthy social-emotional development, which in turn becomes the foundation of an individual’s cognitive development and sense of self-identity.

ACEs lead to an increase in risky and unhealthy behaviors in adolescents and adults. For example, as the number of ACEs a teen has experienced increases, it follows the dose-response curve and the likelihood that that teen will have had sex by age 15, become pregnant as a teen, or impregnate someone as a teen. More ACEs are also correlated with higher risk of attempting suicide at age 18 or below. In Kentucky, which has one of the highest rates of children with three or more ACEs in the country, adults with high ACE scores (three or more ACEs) smoke or binge drink at higher percentages than their low-ACE score counterparts.

However, risky behaviors are not the only way ACEs manifest later in life.  Chronic toxic stress resulting from conditions producing high ACEs starting at birth and beyond increases serum cortisol levels over prolonged periods Arthritis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression are more prevalent in adults age 18 and over with low ACE scores than in adults without, and even more prevalent still in adults with high ACE scores. Astonishingly, you’re more at risk for lung cancer if your ACE score is high than you are if you are a smoker. ACEs aren’t just a matter of psychology or emotion — they’re based in science, and knowledge of them can be a powerful tool for treating patients.

I’ve seen firsthand the serious and long-lasting effects of ACEs on women’s health, and now I realize that compassionate, trauma-informed treatment is a crucial skill for ob-gyns to learn so that we can not only effectively treat our patients but also avoid retraumatizing them without realizing it. Patients with ACEs are not just bringing themselves into our exam rooms — they’re bringing their experiences, too. By learning about ACEs, ob-gyns and their staff can treat patients with compassion and find real, effective solutions to issues that neither the ob-gyn nor the patient could solve otherwise. Start by watching this TED Talk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris and learn how to use ACEs when evaluating patient care options.