Dr Dexter Shurney Explains Role of Health Care Systems in Promoting Food as Medicine

Dexter Shurney, MD, MBA, MPH, chief health equity, diversity, and inclusion officer and chief medical officer at Adventist Health, explains the roles of health care systems and managed care organizations, and next steps to update policies, to ensure healthy food is available in all areas of the United States. Shurney’s talk, “Food As Medicine,” was presented at the National Association of Managed Care Physicians (NAMCP) Spring Managed Care Forum.


Residents in some areas of the United States live in food deserts and, on top of that, we have rising inflation. What role should managed care organizations and health care systems play here?

I think they can play a huge role. I mean, if they really are aware and understand the concept of food as medicine, they need to include that as part of their protocols when they treat patients. Now the problem is, oftentimes, it’s not paid for. Medicare Advantage plans oftentimes have supplemental benefits that they can apply to such things, and they can ask for waivers and things like that, so you’re starting to see some of that happen. I think more and more of that, we’ll start to see.

There’s been some great results. For example, Geisinger has just shown remarkable results in doing this for some of their patients. It’s decreased their readmissions and things like that, so hopefully that will continue. I think there’s a lot that managed care organizations can do, but we have to change some of the policies to fully get there.

What are the next steps for changing these policies?

There’s plenty of research out there that shows the benefit of this. Where the research is probably not as strong as we would like, is that, oftentimes, it’s been done by provider groups that don’t have access to full claims data, so they haven’t been able to fully show the ROI [return on investment].

We need to go to entities and do these kinds of studies with entities that have full access, not only just medical claims but also pharmaceutical claims and specialty pharmacy claims, as well. When you have that full data set then you can actually show the return on investment, so that’s what we need. We know that we can move the numbers. I did a study when I was at Vanderbilt University about a decade ago and we really showed an ROI on this in 6 months because, using an anti-inflammatory diet, we were able to get people off of their high cost drugs, their specialty drugs. Even though you can’t get everyone to eat healthy, you can’t get everyone to adhere to medications either. But you can move the numbers, even if you move a few, particularly if you’re dealing with specialty drugs.