A few years into Dr. Jessica Shepherd’s medical career, she started to question the way she had been treating her patients. While she handled what she calls “the nerdy doctor stuff” with aplomb, she worried that she didn’t devote enough energy to patients’ emotional and social needs.
“There’s so much they are looking for beyond how they’re treated,” Shepherd says. “The problem was that one, I didn’t have enough time to get at the things impacting them emotionally and two, that I didn’t always have the answers. It was sometimes outside the normal medical type of conversation.”
Shepherd’s eureka moment came courtesy of an unexpected party: a television producer who had previously worked on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In Shepherd, the producer saw a credible, empathetic media personality in waiting. What Shepherd needed to master in order to embody that role was the nuance separating exam-room health conversations and broader media dialogues.
Shepherd wasn’t sure she’d fully grasped the distinction — that is, until one of her patients returned for a visit armed with information that Shepherd herself had shared on television.
“The patient was able to use it in the exam-room setting. It resonated with her and helped her help me further guide her process,” she recalls. “I saw firsthand how the information you’re giving, and the way you’re giving it, can possibly change someone’s life.”
Shepherd ranks among the health media world’s most adept multitaskers. She’s on staff as an OB-GYN and gynecologic surgeon at the Baylor University Medical Center, and founded and continues to lead Her Viewpoint (an online forum devoted to discussing women’s health issues in a candid manner) and Sanctum Med + Wellness (a holistic health-minded practice complete with nutritionists and yoga and acupuncture studios). In March, Shepherd joined Verywell Health as chief medical officer, a role in which she helped develop Health Divide, a health content initiative designed to address the disparities and less favorable outcomes experienced by people of color.
It’s an ambitious effort, with Verywell attempting to simultaneously inform about and prompt action around a host of conditions, including breast cancer, uterine fibroids and psoriasis. While Shepherd views Health Divide as first and foremost a resource, she feels a genuine sense of responsibility around presenting the information in a manner that connects with a community that is too often overlooked.
The development of Health Divide started prior to Shepherd’s arrival at Verywell, but her fingerprints were all over the series’ first content volley. She was born shortly after her parents emigrated from Jamaica to Toronto in their early 20s, and grew up in a climate where she “was always very exposed to different cultures and ways of living,” Shepherd says. That focus on (and comfort with) diversity intensified during her medical education, during which she lived in “at least” six cities.
“I like to see the world through travel,” Shepherd continues. “It opens your eyes to things that are different, to people who have different ways of thinking …. It can only enrich your journey as a human.”
That approach, at once informed and deeply humane, has become Verywell Health’s default tonality. Not surprisingly, Verywell Health GM and VP Sara Michael traces it back in no small part to Shepherd’s contributions.
“She took the baton and ran with it,” Michael says. “We recognized that there was a need to address this content in a specific and concerted way …. It’s something that this company sees as vital to who we want to be.”
Shepherd, for her part, views both Health Divide and her broader chief medical officer role as natural next steps in her professional evolution. Setting aside her well-honed media chops — appearances on more or less every national news outlet, and even a college-era stint on Wheel of Fortune — Shepherd’s skill as a communicator stems from her ability to meld the clinical with the emotional.
“Doing media is a different way of touching people’s lives,” she explains. “Through media I feel I’ve been able to connect people to other people going through similar circumstances. There are so many more commonalities and similarities between people than not.”
That sunny outlook, of course, has been put to the test during the last year and a half. Like most other medical professionals, Shepherd lands somewhere between depressed and horrified by the pushback against good, carefully vetted medical science.
“You give information but you just don’t know if or when it gets through to [people] if it’s helping or hurting them. We pride ourselves on information that’s credible and trustworthy and reassures people, and that has greater representation than just one community,” she says.
Asked how Verywell Health’s focus — and her own — was affected by the heightened awareness of health equity-related issues that emerged in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter protests that followed, Shepherd calls back to her medical education and the notion of a “sentinel event.”
As defined by the U.S. Joint Commission, an organization dedicated to driving improvements in patient safety and care, a sentinel event is “an unexpected occurrence involving death or serious physical or psychological injury, or the risk thereof.” In Shepherd’s mind, Floyd’s death represented just such a moment for health equity.
“It caught enough peoples’ attention that we collectively said, ‘We have to change the way we are doing things,’” she explains. “Sometimes it takes something like that to make people say, ‘Hey, what are we doing that we could do better?’ Internally at Verywell, that meant we had to take a look at our content and make sure we were being truly inclusive.”
Early feedback around the Health Divide series suggests that Verywell is on the right path, Shepherd reports, but she stresses that the company’s mission is barely in its infancy. “People are finding themselves looking at someone who looks like them, and that’s important. Small steps, right?”
Shepherd is further heartened by Verywell’s think-big ambitions around issues related to health and wellness as well as diversity, equity and inclusion. “We are a team that really aspires to be life-changing,” she adds. “My life’s goal is to help people change their lives. This is the place to do that.”