FALLS CHURCH, Virginia -- Jennifer Ashton, Chief Health and Medical Correspondent at ABC News, was the guest lecturer at the U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Leadership Lecture Series on October 15, 2021. She is a physician and well-respected broadcast medical journalist. As part of the ABC News medical unit, she reports on major health and wellness issues. Ashton has interviewed the nation’s top medical experts from the White House to the National Institutes of Health. She has also worked at CBS News, other networks, and numerous television shows.
Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the U.S. Army Surgeon General and Commanding General, U.S. Army Medical Command, welcomed Ashton. “We are fortunate to have a phenomenal TV personality [join us]. I was blessed to meet Dr. Ashton a few months ago at a dinner.” Dingle said. He was impressed by “her humbleness, her servant-leadership character, and her passion for her profession.”
For the past 16 years, Ashton has been a national medical correspondent. Before anyone could ask, she answered the question of how she “got here.” Her advice was to “never turn down a dinner invitation,” “follow through when given an offer,” and “be prepared to try new things.”
Those three things, dinner, an offer to interview with a television network, and trying something new kicked off her broadcast journalism career at Fox News.
In 2009, she moved to CBS. By 2012, Ashton was at ABC as the Chief Medical Correspondent with tens of millions of viewers and listeners on the radio.
She encourages people to try something new. In her journey from clinical medicine to broadcast medical journalism, trying something new led to great success for her. She believes that courage and curiosity leads to learning new skills and can be the key to dramatically advancing a career.
Leaders look for challenges, she said. The biggest challenge is communication, and leaders have to communicate well, especially in a crisis. “Communication can mean the difference between life and death in a medical crisis,” Ashton said. “I don’t think we can (over)emphasize how important communication is in a crisis,” said Ashton.
Before communicating, you should ask “what is your unique perspective?” Her perspective, for example, is shaped by being a physician and a member of the national media. She and her team get information before the nation does, and they have to figure out how to condense it for the national audience.
When she has 120 seconds to relay information on the latest COVID topic, for example, she wants everyone to get something from her comments--from an individual with a Ph.D. to a person with a seventh-grade education. You need “macro and micro” levels of understanding who your audience is, she said.
I have challenges with healthcare created by my vantage point, Ashton said. Within the healthcare system, there are issues related to evidence-based medicine, costs, delivering a high-quality product, communicating, and medical accountability.
With patients, it is recognizing their sense of frustration or fear, or confusion with misinformation, she said. Reaching individuals who have either little or significant health literacy and issues with continuity of healthcare adds to the challenge of communicating medical information.
With health literacy, the responsibility is less on the patient and more on the person doing the counseling and educating, she said.
You can’t just treat a body part to care for a person with a disease, Ashton said. You have to treat the entire person — their mental health and their psychological well-being. It’s a holistic level of care and a holistic way of communicating about healthcare.
How do you lead through a crisis? Your demeanor is important and people pay attention to it, she said.
Ashton encourages people to “be humble” — intellectually humble — in communicating during a crisis. Approach a situation with professional and personal humility. For example, admit when you are wrong; state what you know and what you don’t know. Remove doubt from your team. The best doctors state what they don’t know but offer to find answers for you.
How do you distinguish yourself as a leader? Have the credentials, she said. Formal training and education is respected. Be prepared, because there is rarely an opportunity to re-do communication in a crisis. Words and how they are delivered matter. Finally, love what you do, she said.
Whether it’s “one patient or five or ten million people, it starts and ends with a profound respect for the people I’m speaking to,” Ashton said.