From Miss Iowa to Med School: 'I'm Keenly Aware of Who I Am'

John Whyte, MD, MPH; Jennifer Caudle, DO


August 18, 2020

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  • Public health education is more important than ever, especially with the vast amount of misinformation available online.

  • Jennifer Caudle, DO, is keenly aware that every time she talks about health on TV, viewers see something they may not have seen very often: a Black woman physician.

  • The United States is in the midst of a racial reckoning, and the depth of race conversations right now gives Caudle hope for positive change.

  • The Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on inequalities in our country. Patients across racial lines have been affected by the death of George Floyd and are talking about it with their doctors.

  • Representation matters ─ Black mentors and role models are important. Caudle was inspired to become a physician partly because of the encouragement of her childhood Black physician.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Whyte, MD, MPH: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

We're over 6 months into this virus. When is it all going to end? What have we done right? What have we done wrong?

To help answer some of these questions, I've asked my good friend, Dr Jennifer Caudle, an associate professor of medicine at Rowan University, in Glassboro, New Jersey, to join me.

Jennifer Caudle, DO: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

Whyte: You're on television quite a bit, trying to educate folks about what we should be doing, what we shouldn't be doing. Why is it so hard to get good information out there?

Caudle: It is hard to get information out there. I have to say, you're not only a friend, but you're a colleague. I love how you're always on the airwaves as well, talking about the importance of not only good health, but health in this day and age of COVID. One of the things that we share is this passion for getting good information out there.

In this day and age, especially with COVID, talking about health couldn't be more important because of the vast amount of misinformation that's out there. We live in a time where a website, an email, all of this is at our fingertips. Dr Google — you name it. People can get information from so many different places, but it's not necessarily vetted or correct. Or it doesn't necessarily apply to their personal situation.

As a practicing physician and someone who also appears on TV, I feel like it's my duty, and I'm honored to be able to do that because I think it's so important.

Whyte: As a woman of color, you've been very interested in how we address the issue of disparities. COVID-19 has certainly put it back in the limelight. Sadly, more and more people of color are dying from the pandemic.

Do you think we're going to make progress in addressing racial disparities after this pandemic? Or do you think it's just going to be like it always is and we'll go back to having these differences in how long we live, often based on where one lives and the color of one's skin?

Caudle: I actually think we are starting to make progress, and this is encouraging to me as a Black woman. There's something I want to say about the TV work I do: You asked me first about going on television, why talking about health is important to me. It's not lost on me that there are not many Black physicians on television, let alone Black female physicians. Not only is it an honor and a privilege, it's something that's important to me. Black representation does matter.

It mattered to me when I was a child, a little Black girl. I grew up in Iowa, became a med student trying to find my way in medicine, and now am an attending who's been in practice for 12 years.

Being a Black woman in this country is never lost on me. There's never a day or a second that goes by that I am not keenly and consciously aware of exactly who I am.

To your point about racial disparities and racial health disparities, it's a tragedy that's been in place and has existed for decades, perhaps centuries. I do think we are literally in the midst of a racial reckoning; perhaps it was George Floyd that sort of kicked things off. God bless his soul. An outcome of that has been this awareness of disparities in other things, including COVID. We know that African Americans and people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID.

But I do see that there is positive change. As a society, I feel that we are more than ever willing to talk about real racial stuff — getting down to the nitty gritty, the systemic and institutionalized racism — and all sorts of things that have existed. This, to me, is very encouraging. This is what gives me hope.

We have a long way to go; don't get me wrong. But I do think that we are on our way, and I am hopeful.

Whyte: Has Black Lives Matter impacted your practice in terms of what patients are asking or what they're requesting of you? Has it trickled down into your interaction with patients?

Caudle: I would argue that it trickled down to my interactions with patients even before Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is the term that we've given to this concept that, even though we are all created equally, we're not all treated equally, and we don't all have equal experiences in this country. And in particular, Black Lives Matter refers to that of African Americans and our plight.

It's a concept that I'm glad has a name because it's helped. I think it's helped a lot of people understand what we've been saying for a long time and what we've been feeling. But the truth is, that's been my existence all along.

Black Lives Matter as sort of a movement in terms of the marches and protests that happened after George Floyd predominantly, that was a period. I would argue that we're still in it to some degree, but that certainly was a period of great unrest and instability. It was a period of fear, anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment, and so many things.

What I would say about that time in particular was that I talked more with my patients about how they were feeling. They would mention it to me, whether they were White or Black, and it didn't necessarily matter with race. Everybody was up in arms. Everybody was fearful, sad, angry, upset, confused, discouraged. It was a common topic in the office because it affected us all. We weren't sleeping well — I know I wasn't. I was tearful. Many of my patients were.

Naturally, these feelings come up as we talk about doctors' office visits. I know, as you know, because it's a part of people's health and their psychological health and well-being.

It's a long-winded answer, but yes, Black Lives Matter has affected me globally with my patients over time, but also specifically with this period, in June, as we were going through that.

Whyte: One of the ways we address disparities, or one of the solutions, is to have more physicians of color (ie, Hispanic, African American, and so on) in medical school, doing residency, and practicing medicine.

I want to hear a little more about your journey. You left out an important piece of your professional career: You competed in the Miss America pageant and were Miss Iowa in 1999. Tell us your journey and whether you had role models. What was your road to becoming a physician?

Caudle: Thank you for bringing up the Miss America piece. I have to say, that was a detour in my life, one that was not expected at all. I was born and raised in Iowa. Iowa is not a predominantly multicultural or diverse state as we would think about it. But Iowa was an amazing place to grow up.

Interestingly, our family doctor was an African American physician who was an osteopathic physician just like me. His name was Dr Johnson. God rest his soul. He was amazing.

My brother had really bad asthma, and Dr Johnson would come over in the middle of the night with his doctor bag. It's almost like he waved a wand and swung his stethoscope around, and all of a sudden, poof — my brother was better. He seemed like a magician and larger than life. He was a person early on who encouraged me to go into medicine and sparked the interest in me, because I was fascinated with what he did. He was someone, along with other mentors that I had along the way, who really helped keep me going.

No matter how smart you are in medicine, there's always someone smarter. Going through medicine, whether it's residency or med school, there are tough times for everyone. I needed encouragement, just like so many other people.

I went to Princeton for undergrad. When I was at Princeton, my parents were teachers there. That was before a lot of schools had robust financial aid packages. I had some financial aid, but we really couldn't afford it. I had four jobs at Princeton. I worked in the dining hall, delivered newspapers, worked in the music department, played my cello for wedding gigs — you name it.

I remember I was home for Easter my sophomore year in college. I was at church, and a woman started telling us about the Miss America system. I rolled my eyes, thinking, Oh my gosh, you've got to be kidding me, thinking that I was not a beauty pageant contestant type. I thought of myself as a non-pageant type.

Lo and behold, Miss America — at that time, at least — was the world's largest scholarship organization for women. I didn't know it, and when I found that out, it changed everything for me. I started competing.

My first pageant was at the age of 20. My last pageant was at the age of 21 and a half, when I made it to Miss America. I earned a lot of scholarship money to help pay for college.

I always say my path was winding; you never know where things end up. But yes, I did have a lot of mentors along the way.

Whyte: As I mentioned early on, you're on a lot of new TV shows giving good information. I've talked about how hard it is to give good information in sound bites. Tell us what your go-to sources are. I know WebMD is one of them.

Caudle: Yes, it is, of course.

Whyte: What other places do you go to?

Caudle: That's a really great question, especially now that we're in the midst of COVID. There's a lot of new research being published, right? The first thing I do, especially if it's a new study, is go and find that study. I pull whatever research information I can.

With COVID, especially with some of the clinical trials for vaccines and things like that, sometimes we don't have study data. All we have is a press release or an abstract, a preprint version, or something that has not been peer reviewed. But every day is different with COVID; you take what you can get. So my first move is always to try to go to the source.

After that, WebMD is definitely up there and one of my favorites. I also use the CDC and the World Health Organization websites to find out what sort of formal guidelines are being made at this point. That's very important to me.

I also use other sources, such as It's one of my top favorites because it's like a clearinghouse for a lot of different references, places you can go to pull information

Whyte: Dr Jen Caudle, I want to thank you for providing insight today, as you do every day on your Facebook page, your homepage, and across news outlets. Thank you for keeping us informed, and congratulations on your journey.

Caudle: Thank you.

Whyte: And I want to thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.

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