If you were king of the world, knowing what you know about healthcare—its fragmentation and dysfunction—how would you motivate and incentivize the right outcomes? Dexter Shurney, former president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, engages his teams in such research, policy development, and solution-finding in his dual roles as president of the Blue Zones Well-Being Institute (BZWI) and chief health equity, diversity, and inclusion (DEI) officer at Adventist Health.
But the answers to reducing America’s skyrocketing healthcare costs and increasingly ill population aren’t reflected in hospital spreadsheets or medical records, he says. Instead, the greatest opportunities for solutions exist in several less-recognized, often-underestimated commonalities cutting across most health systems and conditions: health inequity and lack of diversity.
Together, these elements dramatically impact healthcare access, costs, prevention, risks, treatments, and outcomes. Addressed in sync and at systematic levels, Shurney believes all these areas can be improved for patients and even providers.
His diverse team and advisory board of “luminaries” ranges from military representatives to tribal community members—all committed to building both the business and healthcare cases for DEI. The transition—from sunsetting unfair practices to rooting out unconscious bias in internal policies to establishing and measuring specific DEI goals—is nothing short of transformative. Authentic DEI efforts go far beyond “checking the boxes” of trainings that employees must dutifully attend, only to ignore later, Shurney says.
“What I’m trying to do is bring people together,” he explains. “I know we may not be able to change the world, but I am hopeful we can make meaningful progress in the world of Adventist Health. There’s also the potential that if we demonstrate changes in our microcosm of society, our methods may become a model for other organizations and can shape critical policy areas.”
Diversity, for instance, “is more than race and gender,” Shurney continues. “Just because I have brown skin doesn’t mean you can put me in a specific box. And it’s not just me; it’s everyone. Diversity will vary based on education, religion, income, friendships, national cultures, and more. Everyone should have a reason or motive to become part of a diversity program that explores what connects us instead of what divides us. That’s best practice, and we won’t leave anybody behind.”
Dexter Shurney believes different perspectives generate diverse ideas that “make us better if we can communicate and talk, and not be hostile or polarized on issues. At Adventist Health, we say everyone is respected, everybody is valued, and everybody is included.”
Aside from diversity, interest in health equity has surged since the stark impacts of COVID-19 revealed the realities around social determinants of health. Black and Hispanic Americans, for instance, are twice as likely to die of the virus as white patients, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. But even pre-COVID, the most expensive, harmful, and common serious health conditions—including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer—showed higher incidence rates among minority and other ethnic and underserved populations.
As one response, Shurney oversees a BZWI equity project examining the higher rates of colon cancer in Black men. The institute, launched as an independent nonprofit subsidiary in 2021, began a year after Adventist Health acquired the for-profit Blue Zones franchise. Blue Zones uses its own research on healthy living for improved longevity to provide services and products that help communities address priority health issues for their residents.
“At BZWI, we’re figuring out how to close the major gaps in health equity, lower the cost of healthcare, and dramatically prevent, treat, and manage chronic conditions through the advancement of lifestyle medicine,” Shurney says. “With innovative solutions such as re-envisioning provider reimbursement models and elevating equity-focused research, we’re able to test and scale best practices for practical, widespread usage.”
BZWI also addresses the root causes of diseases—80 percent of which are due to lifestyle—and aligns motivations and incentives for healthcare providers and communities to reach better health and wellness outcomes.
In Dexter Shurney’s DEI work for Adventist Health—a faith-based organization—spirituality plays a driving role. “The AH mission statement is to live in God’s love, and what better way to share that compassion, respect, and call to service than in a DEI program?” he says. “We should try to love and support one another. In doing so, we also support the overall mission of our organization.”
Spirituality serves as an additional lever for inspiring someone to change personal lifestyle habits, notes Shurney. “In her recent book, Reimagining Workplace Well-Being, my good friend Dr. Jessica Grossmeier highlights the substantial research supporting adoption of spiritual well-being practices, but most employers don’t know of this scientific evidence, nor that it’s possible to address faith in a way that honors DEI while also complying with HR policies.”
Shurney grew up in an Adventist household with parents who were a public health nurse and a dentist. “My mother was big on healthy living,” Shurney says. “That’s part of the [Seventh-day Adventist’s] heritage. . . The Bible says that the body is a temple of God. As an Adventist, you talk about how you should eat and take care of yourself and how it makes a difference both physically and spiritually.”
When Dexter Shurney left for college and medical school, though, he “did anything but live a healthy lifestyle. Ironically, in medical school I had a sense of justification, since it was not the focus of what I was being taught—that there is ‘a pill for every ill,’ and that prevention and lifestyle were primarily public health concerns.
“It wasn’t until later in life, when I was a physician and having health issues of my own—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and prediabetes with obesity—that I studied the science of health and well-being,” he continues. “Within a few months of practicing basic healthy lifestyle principles, my health turned around. I came off all my medications and even lost weight, something I’d struggled with my entire life.”
Susan Benigas, executive director at the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, says, “We are extremely grateful for Dexter’s leadership in casting the vision for the American College of Lifestyle Medicine’s Health Equity Achieved through Lifestyle Medicine (HEAL) Initiative. HEAL is working toward addressing lifestyle-related chronic disease health disparities and diversifying the lifestyle medicine workforce.”
To Shurney, his double leadership roles at Adventist Health and BZWI deliver on his greatest personal and professional goal: making a difference.
“I’m able to research, connect the dots, think outside the box, and not be encumbered by common institutional constructs of typical academic organizations,” Dexter Shurney says. “Our team doesn’t have to worry about whether we ‘publish or perish’ or are on pace to obtain tenure. I was just in the UK with international researchers and government officers, talking about equity, well-being, and how best to turn knowledge into practice or policy. This is the kind of research in action that brings me great fulfillment.”
The American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) is the nation’s medical professional society advancing lifestyle medicine as the foundation for a redesigned, high-value, and equitable healthcare delivery system. Lifestyle medicine is a growing specialty promoting evidence-based therapies of whole food, plant-predominant nutrition, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, risky substance avoidance, and positive social connection to prevent, treat, and often reverse lifestyle-related chronic diseases. Dr. Dexter Shurney, past president of ACLM, helped create ACLM’s HEAL (Health Equity Achieved through Lifestyle Medicine) Initiative, and advises its Health Systems Council, a collaborative lifestyle medicine learning community of sixty-nine members.