Understanding the Conceptualization and Operationalization of Trauma-Informed Care Within and Across Systems: A Critical Interpretive Synthesis

Original Scholarship Population Health

Policy Points:

  • In order to achieve successful operationalization of trauma-informed care (TIC), TIC policies must include conceptual clarity regarding the definition of both trauma and TIC. Furthermore, TIC requires clear and cohesive policies that address operational factors such as clearly delineated roles of service providers, protocol for positive trauma screens, necessary financial infrastructure, and mechanisms of intersectoral collaboration.
  • Additionally, policy procedures need to be considered for how TIC is provided at the program and service level as well as what TIC means at the organizational, system, and intersectoral level.

Context: Increased recognition of the epidemiology of trauma and its impact on individuals within and across human service delivery systems has contributed to the development of trauma-informed care (TIC). How TIC can be conceptualized and implemented, however, remains unclear. This study seeks to review and analyze the TIC literature from within and across systems of care and to generate a conceptual framework regarding TIC.

Methods: Our study followed a critical interpretive synthesis methodology. We searched multiple databases (Campbell Collaboration, Econlit, Health Systems Evidence, Embase, ERIC, HealthSTAR, IPSA, JSTOR, Medline, PsychINFO, Social Sciences Abstracts, Sociological Abstracts and Web of Science), as well as relevant gray literature and information-rich websites. We used a coding tool, adapted to the TIC literature, for data extraction.

Findings: Electronic database searches yielded 2,439 results and after inclusion/ exclusion criteria were applied, a purposive sample of 98 information-rich articles was generated. Conceptual clarity and definitional understanding of TIC is lacking in the literature, which has led to poor operationalization of TIC. Additionally, infrastructural and ideological barriers, such as insufficient funding and service provider “buy-in,” have hindered TIC implementation. The resulting conceptual framework defines trauma and depicts critical elements of vertical TIC, including the bidirectional relationship between the trauma-affected individual and the system, and horizontal TIC, which requires intersectoral collaboration, an established referral network, and standardized TIC language.

Conclusions: Successful operationalization of TIC requires policies that address current gaps in systems arrangements, such as the lack of funding structures for TIC, and political factors, such as the role of policy legacies. The emergent conceptual framework acknowledges critical factors affecting operationalization.

Keywords: trauma, trauma-informed care, child welfare, education, justice, health, social services.


Bargeman M, Abelson J, Mulvale G, Niec A, Theuer A, Moll S. Understanding the Conceptualization and Operationalization of Trauma-Informed Care Within and Across Systems: A Critical Interpretive Synthesis. Milbank Q. September 13, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0009.12579