Serving the underserved: Meet Dr. Asher Turney
From studying neurosurgery to serving society’s most vulnerable populations, Dr. Asher Turney has forged a career path uniquely his own.
As market chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, Dr. Turney describes his current role as a clinical compass and conscience guiding UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare plan and ensuring members live healthier lives.
Dr. Turney’s one-of-a-kind perspective draws on nearly 20 years of serving the underserved at Federally Qualified Health Centers and other nonprofit and community-based clinics, along with earning advanced degrees in both medicine and business.
After receiving his medical degree from Meharry Medical College, Dr. Turney went on to complete a neurosurgery internship at Harvard, an occupational medicine residency at Meharry Medical College and a master’s degrees in Business Administration at Emory University and Public Health at Meharry. He also earned a health policy certificate from the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Institute. He has been board certified in preventive medicine and urgent care medicine.
Along the way, Dr. Turney also found time to give a voice and face to the underrepresented through filmmaking.
Dr. Turney recently answered questions about his unique background, experiences and interests.
What made you want to become a doctor?
When I was a kid, I read a book called Gifted Hands by Ben Carson, M.D. I was inspired by Dr. Carson’s remarkable story of growing up under difficult circumstances in Detroit and his journey to become director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. He was the youngest director of any pediatric neurosurgery program in the United States.
I also became a neurosurgeon, and I actually got a chance to work with Dr. Carson in real life at Johns Hopkins, along with my training at Vanderbilt and a few other schools.
I am fortunate that my mother also is a physician and role model for me. Throughout my childhood and into my young adulthood, I saw her work in health care, helping underserved populations.
Why did you choose to focus on underserved populations?
My medical career has always been centered around underserved populations. Initially, it was more socioeconomically disadvantaged populations and working with those incarcerated or ex-offenders. Now I’m focused on the elderly and those covered by Medicare. I believe we have a responsibility, especially as health care providers, to help people less fortunate.
How did your medical career take you from neurosurgery to working with underserved populations?
After finishing medical school and getting into my senior residency, I had a change of heart. I saw the world very differently, and I wanted to do more investigation. I was interested in the way health care was compensated, organized and delivered. Those things weren’t necessarily taught in a residency program, so I ended up going to Emory University and getting an MBA in entrepreneurship and leadership. At that time, business school opened up a lot for me. It made my world go from monochromatic to technicolor and really pushed me to reimagine a better career for myself.
When it came down to it, it was the relationships, the ability to connect with people that made the difference. I’m not taking away from what people do surgically. Surgical skills are critically important for a lot of reasons, but it also takes the ability to connect with a person’s mind and with their heart to be able to help them through the process. Because after you’ve done the surgery, you still have to get the person to rehab and get them back to whatever their next normal is. I think that was my gift more than my surgical ability, so I’m happy I went this route. It’s been an amazing experience to be able to take care of my family, as well as helping other people at the same time.
How did you get involved with filmmaking?
I felt too few stories depicting characters I saw in real life were on screen. I saw stereotypes and pushed for more representation of positive, strong characters that happen to be from other backgrounds. I wanted to show diversity on film so that’s why I got into it. It's still in my blood, but I haven’t really done any major filmmaking in the last two or three years – since COVID-19 started. I gave that up to focus on health care, because that was where I was really needed.
Prior to COVID, we actually won the American Public Health Association’s Public Health Film Festival in 2019 with a piece called Becoming. It was a web-based lifestyle management program for college students – helping them with weight, exercise, mental health, sleep hygiene, dealing with the stressful circumstances of being a student. It showed how two students made it through to their graduation or completion of their school year and was featured on the websites of Fisk University and the Tennessee Department of Health.
What keeps you passionate about your work?
The thing that keeps me coming back is that every day is a challenge. People are very appreciative when you do help them. And it’s great when you work with people who have the same mission. We’re able to synergize and truly do something we couldn’t do alone.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I enjoy traveling and seeing life through different lenses. I’m a photographer and I do drone photography. When I can travel, I take lots of pictures. I also like to travel through my taste buds, so I explore new places to eat. I live in Nashville, and it’s a great city for that type of experience.
What’s the most fascinating place you’ve ever visited?
Seychelles, a small island country off the coast of Madagascar, near Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, was a beautiful place. The culture was amazing, and the food was awesome. They have everything from 200-year-old tortoises to prehistoric-looking rock formations to the world’s largest coconut. It’s a place I would like my children to see one day, and I highly recommend it.
Prior to his current role at UnitedHealthcare, Dr. Asher Turney was a regional medical director for Optum. He has worked in managed care and community health care for nearly 20 years, and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family.