The BusinessMakers Radio Show

Episode #468: Dr. Jennifer Ashton

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Laura: Hi, everyone. I'm Laura Max. This is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. I'm thrilled today to be here with Dr. Jennifer Ashton. You probably recognize her from the ABC show, The Doctors. She's also the medical correspondent for ABC News. Jennifer, welcome to the show.

Dr. Ashton: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

Laura: Well, it's not every day that you meet an OBGYN who probably spends half of her time on the national TV scale. How did you make the transition into television?

Dr. Ashton: You know I always tell people, including my two teenage children, this is what makes life exciting - is that sometimes the biggest things that happen to us are not planned. And they're not on our radar. They're not orchestrated. Typically, doctors tend to be very methodical, and we plan 10 years in advance, 15 years in advance, just because that's the nature of our profession and our career. But I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. And I come from a big medical family, and I love being in the field of women's health. So deciding on OBGYN was an easy choice for me. But one day, eight years ago, I met people in the television news media business, and they suggested that I do television. And I thought they were just being nice.

Laura: And you'd never thought before that that was something you were interested in?

Dr. Ashton: Never. Absolutely never. And I said, "Oh, that's so sweet of you. Thank you." And they said, "No. We're not trying to be nice. This is what we do as a career."

Laura: "We're serious."

Dr. Ashton: They see people like that. So one thing led to another, and I was hired by Fox News Channel, the National Cable Network. I was their first woman medical contributor. I was there for three years. Then I was hired by CBS Network and worked on The Evening News with Katie Couric and their Early Show. And then I was hired by ABC and now contribute to Good Morning, America several times a week, World News with Diane Sawyer, and then also do the daytime television world, as co-host of The Doctors. So it's been an incredible experience. But literally, in terms of nuts and bolts, there is no distinction between what I do in my office, woman to woman, and what I do in front of a camera. Because it's the same communication.

Laura: Well, I've noticed that. I mean you have two books out right now.

Dr. Ashton: Right.

Laura: So you have Your Body Beautiful, which caters to women in their thirties and forties.

Dr. Ashton: Right.

Laura: And you also have The Body Scoop for Girls, which I read 30 pages of, before I interviewed you.

Dr. Ashton: Right. Good. Good.

Laura: In about five minutes. It's so good. I wish I'd had it when I was an adolescent.

Dr. Ashton: Oh, good. I'm glad.

Laura: And you are very good at communicating your message without making people feel embarrassed. I think that's so key in your profession. You're an OBGYN.

Dr. Ashton: Right. Right.

Laura: Women - we think about going to the OBGYN, and it's like, "Eh." Don't want to talk about it.

Dr. Ashton: It's like the worst thing ever for most women.

Laura: So to be able to communicate that in a way that makes women feel comfortable - when did you start to realize, "Hey, this is something I can really do"?

Dr. Ashton: You know I don't know if I ever totally realized that.

Laura: Still realizing?

Dr. Ashton: Yeah. I mean I think that one thing that really compelled me to the field of women's health and OBGYN in particular is the fact that we are the backbone of our culture and our society, as women. And that starts as teenagers. I think that so many women don't like their OBGYN or don't like their healthcare partner or provider.

Laura: They don't feel comfortable talking to that person either.

Dr. Ashton: Right. And I think that certainly a lot of that is not in anyone's control. I mean we have real constraints on our relationships now with healthcare providers. People are spending four minutes with a patient, which is just an abomination.

Laura: Not enough time at all.

Dr. Ashton: Right. If your doctor's hand is on the doorknob, as you're still asking your second question, that's usually a bad sign. I think part of what led me to be so committed to the importance of communication is what I saw from my own family. And I saw my father and my aunt as long-term partners in their patients' health. And I wanted to be that woman. I wanted to be there when my patient had her first period, her first baby, her first hot flash. You know? And then as a little, old lady. And it's such a privilege to be the wing man or wing woman of a woman throughout the course of her lifetime, and to let her know: "I'm in this with you. I get it. I've either been there, done that, or it's going to come to me, and I'm going to know exactly what you're talking about." And if I haven't experienced something personally, just knowing that as a woman, we're all really in it together. And that's what I love about - I'm so lucky to do what I do.

Laura: Well, I can tell, from reading your book The Body Scoop for Girls that you do really thrive on those one-on-one relationships. You're following these girls from puberty all the way up to their first hot flash, if you will.

Dr. Ashton: Totally.

Laura: And you have many suggestions for them, which I happened to read.

Dr. Ashton: Yes.

Laura: Some of them are listed on the back of the book. I'm going to go through a few of them, if you don't mind.

Dr. Ashton: Go ahead.

Laura: One of my favorites, which I was just so curious to know more about, is the decision to have sex, and why the "Wait 'til 18" Club has its membership privileges. Can you tell us what that means? What is the "Wait 'til 18" Club?

Dr. Ashton: Okay. Well, I mean first of all, 50 percent - half of my patient practice - is under the age of 21. And I absolutely love this age group. I have college patients who are texting me and tweeting me and Instagraming me from their sororities - sometimes random questions, sometimes fresh questions from their friends. I -

Laura: That really says a lot about you, as a doctor.

Dr. Ashton: I love it though.

Laura: Because I would never, in a million years, ever be sending any kind of text message to my doctor.

Dr. Ashton: I love that. I consider it such a privilege - to be that important to them, and to be the person that they know they can count on, wherever they are. Holidays in my office are called Big Ten Week, because every Big Ten college and university comes flooding through my office. And we have Penn State and Michigan and Wisconsin and Indiana State. I mean everyone is there, so it's a fun, little time in my office. But specifically about the decision to have sex - I think back to what I experienced when I was a teenager. And I was the daughter of a nurse, the daughter of a doctor. My aunt was an OBGYN. And I got very little personal guidance about that decision. Basically, all I got from those people in my family is: "Just make sure that you don't ever do anything you don't want to do, and that you are responsible with your health."

Laura: That's it?

Dr. Ashton: Two lines.

Laura: From a family of doctors. But that doesn't surprise me at all. Because reading this, I'm thinking, "How great would it have been to have had an adult there, having these conversations with me." But we don't talk about it.

Dr. Ashton: Right. And I think that - what does that tell you? That tells you that people with the knowledge - it's uncomfortable for them. And so it's my job to talk about the uncomfortable things all the time. So moms - I always encourage them to use me. "If you just get squirmy, and you don't want to talk to your daughter about these things, let me do it for you. Because I am a mom, so I can guarantee you we're going to be saying a lot of the same things." And, in particular, I encourage my patients to wait. I say the age of 18 because while it's fairly arbitrary, it's an appropriate age for a lot of things that we do in our culture and our society.

Laura: Smoking.

Dr. Ashton: Serving in the military. Voting. You're a legal adult. So I tack on being sexually active in that age group. However, I also say in the book, "The longer you wait, the better."

Laura: You do say, "Nineteen's better than eighteen; twenty is better than nineteen." Why is that?

Dr. Ashton: Because I think that it's very clear that the longer you wait before you're exposed to another person's DNA, which is how I started this conversation with my teenage daughter -

Laura: Great way of putting it.

Dr. Ashton: Then she asked me what that meant, and I had to really get into it.

Laura: Then you had to get into that.

Dr. Ashton: But the better for your medical health, your physical health. But I am almost more concerned with the spiritual health and the soulful health of my teenage patients when they make that decision.

Laura: You said that in your book - that the emotional distress of having sex too early can actually deter one's academic career. It can take a huge toll when you're 16, and you're not ready for it.

Dr. Ashton: A hundred percent. So what I'm concerned about is less the medical issues, when it comes to making that decision, and more how it affects their spirit and their soul. Because the medical treatments are easy. You know I can write a prescription for something. That's easy. I can't write a prescription to dry their tears or to help how they feel about their own self-image and self-esteem. So I think that doctors need to take the role on that. Moms need to take the role. Dads need to take the role.

Laura: Absolutely.

Dr. Ashton: And not live in this black or white world, where I'm going to put my head in the sand and assume that it's not going to happen. Because it is happening. And I think that having that trust and communication and respect with a teenager is critically, critically important.

Laura: As adults, we need to be starting the conversation, which is what you're doing.

Dr. Ashton: Way earlier than it's started.

Laura: Than we are starting it.

Dr. Ashton: And you know, Laura, one thing that you probably have read in the book, that most people don't know, is that ACOG, which is our American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommends that a teenager see a gynecologist for the first time between the ages of 13 and 15. And that should have -

Laura: I was told 18. Everyone's told 18.

Dr. Ashton: Right. Because as I say to my patients, I'm not just the vagina doctor. So -

Laura: Most people can't even say that word.

Dr. Ashton: That's right. That's right.

Laura: I even just laughed.

Dr. Ashton: You know it's the head to toe person that's usually connected with that body part. And the reason that that recommendation exists is that - if you take a 13-year-old girl to a gynecologist, and she does not need a pelvic exam, she doesn't need an internal, she doesn't need a Pap smear 'til she's 21 - and that is a national recommendation - you are exposing her to knowledge about her reproductive health from an early age. And you're showing her that: "You need to put your health first. You still need a pediatrician, but you need someone who's trained and educated in women's health." And if you start sending that message to a 13-year-old, I believe they will know more and be less likely to become sexually active too soon. And so I think we need to get that message out there, and it needs to start sooner. My daughter, when she got her first period, was already asking me, "Who's going to be my gynecologist? You?" And I said, "Not in a million years. But I'm going to find you a good one."

Laura: Not happening. Well, speaking of women's health and starting early, your next book, Your Body Beautiful, caters to 30 and 40-year-old women and beyond. And you have three suggestions or musts for women.

Dr. Ashton: Yes.

Laura: One is sleep. Exercise and eating well. For some reason, all three are major challenges for us women these days.

Laura: How do you do on those?

Dr. Ashton: Ah. You know I'm very - I have to get my eight hours. So that goes without question.

Dr. Ashton: Good.

Laura: I'm very good with the eight hours. I try to walk as much as I can. I do a little bit of yoga.

Dr. Ashton: Okay. Good.

Laura: The food - we're getting better.

Dr. Ashton: Okay.

Laura: I'm realizing that I'm not going to be a little 20-something forever.

Dr. Ashton: Everyone can tweak. Everyone can improve.

Laura: I'm adding greens. I'm adding vegetables. Wasn't expecting to be asked that on the spot. So maybe I'm answering a little bit more kindly toward myself.

Dr. Ashton: I threw down the gauntlet for you. Good.

Laura: But after this conversation, I think I'll be doing - I'll be paying more attention to that.

Dr. Ashton: Good. And I'm going to be checking up on you. So.

Laura: But sleep is the one that I get the "A" rating on. So what I'm curious to know is: what would happen to me, to other women when we lose sleep? Why is it so important?

Dr. Ashton: You know I wish that I could write a prescription: "Sleep seven to nine hours a night." Because for some reason, we have a mindset in this country and in our culture, where you go to a doctor, and unless they hand you a prescription when you walk out the door, you haven't been treated - which I really disagree with.

Laura: Very true.

Dr. Ashton: But such is the reality. So if I could write a prescription - "Sleep seven to nine hours a night" - and actually have people follow it, like they would a medication that they're picking up at the pharmacy, I think we would be a lot healthier. I think that - look, it's hard. We look at sleep like it's a luxury, or you're lazy if you need a lot of sleep.

Laura: But I'm so mean if I don't sleep.

Dr. Ashton: Me too. Me too.

Laura: There are many people who are close to me, who will vouch for that. I am not nice when I don't sleep.

Dr. Ashton: You and I have that in common. I am one cranky you-know-what if I don't get my sleep. But it's more than that. Your skin won't look as good. My skin looks awful when I haven't gotten a lot of sleep. I'm not as energetic to do my exercise that I have to make part of every single day. My brain isn't as sharp. And anyone in any job - who has the luxury of not being able to do their work, when they're not firing on all cylinders? No one.

Laura: No one.

Dr. Ashton: So whether you're a student, whether you're a career woman, whether you're a stay-at-home mom, your brain needs that time to recharge and repair itself from the stresses of the day before. And if you don't do it, you will suffer the negative health consequences. It's just a matter of: people don't realize what those things are.

Laura: Well, sleep is something - especially - sleep is something that takes time. Exercise takes time out of our day. Eating well - we have to make conscious choices.

Dr. Ashton: Uh-huh. Right.

Laura: I find that with women especially, taking that time for ourselves comes with this stigma that we are being selfish, or we're not giving enough to others.

Dr. Ashton: Right.

Laura: What do you have to say to that? Why is that inherently not true? And what can we do about it?

Dr. Ashton: You know, again, I think it's about re-shifting the paradigm and showing people what they can expect and what they can assume will come from a given woman or a given teenager. So, for example, I told my 14-year-old daughter, who's going to boarding school in the fall, to play ice hockey. And she is a very good student. And I said to her, "Let me tell you the critical tip for succeeding in high school. Make sleep a non-negotiable part of your day."

Laura: Non-negotiable.

Dr. Ashton: Because the second you start skimping on sleep, everything will fall, like a domino effect, after that. You won't be effective on the ice. You will not be effective in doing your homework. Your grades will start to slip. You will get sick. And then that snowballs. And I think what I see all the time - and I see it in professional women. I see it in moms. I see it in teenagers - is they don't recognize the importance of sleep. They don't make it a priority. And then they find all those other sets and areas in their life not functioning well. I can't emphasize this enough. I would not be able to do the jobs that I do, without the sleep that I get. Because everything would suffer. And once you start to see that, then you start to say, "You know what? I'm not being selfish. I'm being practical, and I'm actually being selfless."

Laura: Because the people around me are going to benefit from how well rested I am.

Dr. Ashton: A hundred percent. No question.

Laura: Well, I really am glad that there are more women coming out, talking about how important sleep is specifically, and just talking about the things that women face every day, taking the stigma off, and opening the conversation. I'm so glad that you are one of those women.

Dr. Ashton: Oh, thanks. Thank you so much.

Laura: It was an honor to have you on the show, Dr. Ashton.

Dr. Ashton: Oh, thanks for having me. And it's so great to meet you and be with you. And I'm going to follow up on you with your diet.

Laura: Oh, please follow up with me on my diet. I could use some extra - some extra following up.

Dr. Ashton: I will be there.

Laura: And that wraps up my interview with Dr. Jennifer Ashton. This is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. I'm Laura Max, your host. Thanks for joining us. See you next week.