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We have known for years that patients are more likely to start and maintain healthy behaviors and to better control their medical conditions when their doctor tells them to. We also know that people are more successful at making healthy changes when a health coach  motivates and guides them to stay on task.

So it’s no surprise that people are more successful when those two things are combined, as in when a doctor prescribes coaching to patients to help them follow through on their goals.

“Some health management programs are doing this now and employers are taking notice,” says Dr. Michael Parkinson, senior medical director of UPMC Health Plan and UPMC WorkPartners. “Physicians can now prescribe healthy behaviors, chronic disease management and better decision-making about surgery to employees. Of particular interest to employers, physicians are sending employees to coaching programs and online tools for such things as stress management, maternity support, weight loss, high blood pressure and chronic back pain.”

Smart Business spoke with Parkinson about the latest developments in this trend.

Why are so many employers offering health coaching to their employees?

It’s clear that changing unhealthy habits to healthier behaviors can head off chronic diseases, prevent them from getting worse and even reverse their effects.

While most health care providers would love to continually encourage patients to adopt healthy behaviors and get to the root of their patients’ health issues, most doctors simply lack the time or the expertise and resources needed to do the proper follow-up care. That’s where health management programs can help. They extend a doctor’s influence between office visits and help patients stay on their personalized care plans.

How do these doctor-prescribed health coaching programs work?

Let’s say a doctor prescribes a weight-loss program to help prevent a chronic disease such as diabetes. A trained health coach receives the physician’s prescription order at the same time that it is given to the patient. The coach then provides support and encouragement to help the patient become healthier, more engaged and more competent to manage his or her health. The health coach also provides the doctor feedback, which supports the doctor-patient relationship. Embedding the prescription for health coaching into the doctor’s electronic medical record represents a major breakthrough in increasing the ease and effectiveness of the process.

This arrangement produces better outcomes and usually lowers costs as well. It’s a win-win. The doctor gains additional support while the patient gets the health and medical assistance he or she needs.

Can you talk more about the doctor’s involvement in health coaching?

It’s important to note that these health management programs do not replace the doctor’s care. Rather, they support the doctor’s care. Most of these programs are facilitated by nurses, dietitians, exercise experts and other licensed and trained clinicians, often with medical director oversight. Also, these health coach professionals provide support based on the doctor’s specific recommendations. They will even help patients better prepare for their next office visit. Health coaches can evaluate treatment options and help people improve their skills in communicating their preferences to their doctors. Each patient is in expert hands throughout the process.

What types of health coaching are available?

There are health management programs in behavioral health, condition management, maternity and lifestyle improvement. These programs offer support for a range of needs, including depression and anxiety, substance abuse, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, prenatal care, weight loss and nutrition, stress management and tobacco cessation.

Health coaches also provide support for people who need to make decisions about medical treatments or elective procedures. As an added bonus, most programs have no copays for employees. Better still, many employers incentivize their employees to enroll in and complete health-coaching programs. Finally, to accommodate busy employees, coaches are often available in person or via phone nights and weekends.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan