“We should trust women,” I hear through my headphones as I listen to the first episode of the “The V Word,” the women’s health podcast Dr. Jenn Conti and Dr. Erica Cahill launched in February 2018. It’s a comment both validating and hard-hitting here in 2019, when we continue to have to make that point. The fact is, when your rights or access are challenged—no matter who you are—you are vulnerable. As a privileged, educated woman in the United States, I feel that vulnerability.
Back in 2016, Conti, a Clinical Assistant Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Cahill, a Clinical Instructor in Obstetrics and Gynecology, were feeling that vulnerability, too. And they wanted to talk about it. Cahill looked for a medically accurate podcast for both a sense of hope and answers about how political outcomes might affect women’s health—and she couldn’t find it. What she did find were “health and beauty” podcasts that were a lot more about the latter than the former. “Jenn literally bought a mic that day and we figured out how to use it,” Cahill recalls of the birth of their podcast partnership.
With “The V Word,” (and, yes, the “V” stands for vagina) they also aspired to address a gap they were observing between women’s lived experiences and scientific progress. “We wanted to create a space for this conversation, if not start to bridge that gap between what women were asking questions about and what the medical field was saying,” Cahill says. In obstetrics, they point to the fact that medical research up until now has focused on fetal outcomes, not maternal outcomes. “We knew that black babies had 1-2 times the rate of needing NICU care,” Conti explains. “We had no idea until recently that black women had 3-4 times the risk of [maternal] death. It is 2019. That is insane.” Here again are questions of vulnerability and access.
“One of our most important jobs is being a space to hold that for people and being a space where people get to sort out those things and trying to support them.”
They also point to the example of at-home fertility testing. “I guess theoretically you can take this information and misinterpret it or draw the wrong conclusions, but it is your health information. Why are we gatekeeping it so hard?” Conti asks. “It’s actually an issue of choice. My job is to be the interpreter and educator, not the gatekeeper.” Conti then asserts those vital words again: “Trust women. Just trust women.”
Now when I hear them, we are all sitting together in Conti’s office at Stanford, where they record the podcast. As self-proclaimed “badass gynecologists,” they go by Dr. Jenn and Dr. Erica on the show, produced as well by Bethney Bonilla and Aysha Choudhary. They are as approachable in person as they are as podcast hosts discussing things we typically might with for girlfriends, or might not discuss with anyone at all. Nothing is too personal or too marginal, from birth plans, miscarriage, and postpartum depression to pregnancy behind bars, human trafficking, or being a transwoman. (The box to click to listen to each episode is suitably titled “Listen & Learn”).
Their episodes (over 45 now) also have a valuable two-part structure, including their own conversation on a certain topic and medical points-of-view as well as an interview with a woman who has lived the experience, such as what it’s like to go through surrogacy or be a gynecology patient in a wheelchair. Recently, they added their “Ask a Lady Doc” segment to bring other women doctors into the conversation as well as “In Their Shoes,” a mini-episode that takes a deeper dive into one condition or woman’s story, all in the name of creating those extra spaces as they cover breastfeeding (as well as breasts in general), the history and cost of birth control, abortion bans, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, heart disease, the effects of alcohol on the female body, painful sex, immigrant women’s health, domestic violence, lesbian health, fertility preservation, and TIME’S UP Healthcare, an episode topic they’d delved into just that morning. (Healthcare workers follow the entertainment industry when it comes to the number of claims made.)
In other words, Dr. Jenn and Dr. Erica cover it all. Because when you actually start talking openly about the female body and mind, the topics that pertain to women’s health are many and they are relevant. In being both open and science-based, it’s Conti and Cahill’s overarching aim to also de-stigmatize these experiences. “It’s why this podcast is incredibly therapeutic,” Cahill says of topics that have often made patients think they’re alone when they come to them with questions.
“There are so many layers of complication in healthcare provision, but at the end of the day it’s me and the woman I’m in the room with,” Cahill says of all she holds in her interactions with patients, from privacy issues to social responsibility. “Then when we think about reproductive care, adding into that holding her experience with her partner, her family, her history of her experience with her sexual health and her body, and all the laws and regulations that go into regulating her body. One of our most important jobs is being a space to hold that for people and being a space where people get to sort out those things and trying to support them.” When Cahill is not with patients, she is a women’s health researcher dedicated to improving contraceptive options for women. One project she’s at work on is a form of contraception that only has to be taken at the time of intercourse, a practical idea many women would welcome, but which little research has been put behind.
Meanwhile, Conti’s related work circles back to storytelling. She is also a medical journalist and holds two master’s degrees, one in Journalism from Columbia and one in Epidemiology from Stanford. When she writes for Slate.com, The Guardian, or ABCNews.com, she sets the record straight about women’s health. “I’m driven by telling a story, getting people to hear someone’s story, and fix the way it’s being communicated,” she says. “Everyone has fascinating stories if you just stop and listen.” And as “The V Word” is asking those of us who really do listen: learn.