Your guide to good health Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

The concept of health coaching is evolving and becoming more and more a part of mainstream health care. What once may have been viewed as a treatment designed to help individuals address specific health risk behaviors — quitting smoking or losing weight, for example — health coaching is now seen as an effective method to manage wellness concerns across the full spectrum of health care, from prevention to managing chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma.

Tim Cline, senior director of clinical training and development at UPMC Health Plan, says health coaching also provides numerous benefits to employers.

“Employers seek health coaching to improve employee health, lower medical costs through reduced lifestyle risks, increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and presenteeism, and increase job satisfaction and employee retention,” says Cline.

Smart Business spoke with Cline about the changing concept of health coaching and how it can affect your business.

What is the main focus of health coaching?

Health coaching aims to maximize one’s ability to improve health, quality of life and productivity. The emphasis is on ‘one’s ability.’ In the traditional medical model approach, there is an unspoken expectation that the provider will do something to ‘fix’ the patient’s problem. Health coaching examines the patient’s own role in his or her health outcomes, focusing on empowerment, self-mastery and self-responsibility.

Rather than looking exclusively for what’s broken and fixing it, health coaching takes a whole-person approach, addressing specific health concerns in the context of an individual’s complete health picture as well as strengths, resources, learning style and preferences. Using this approach, a health coach is able, for example, to shift a person’s perspective from losing a lot of weight quickly for an upcoming vacation or social event to learning healthier, gradual weight loss strategies that are sustainable and will reduce that individual’s lifetime risks for developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other chronic conditions.

What advantages do health coaches bring in terms of preventive care?

Because the medical field tends to be disease-centric, the emphasis is on treating the patient’s current medical conditions, with little time to look at the lifestyle factors that may have caused the illness or how lifestyle changes may help prevent other conditions or lessen the odds of recurrence. Health coaching is an effective preventive tool because it is effective in reducing people’s tendency to engage in risky behaviors.

The medical community needs to be aware of health coaching programs available to their patients and ‘prescribe’ these interventions in conjunction with more traditional medical treatments such as medications and surgery.

Who are health coaches?

Health coaches usually have a background in one or more of the following areas: nursing, social work, public health, exercise physiology, nutrition or health education. Many have advanced degrees and significant work experience in a health-related profession prior to beginning their specialized training to become health coaches.

What makes a good health coach?

High-performance health coaches generally share several characteristics. These include a strong desire to help others improve their health; a love of teaching; strong communication skills; a high degree of empathy; social and emotional intelligence; outstanding customer service skills; curiosity and creativity; and technical expertise within their specialties.

Are incentives a good way to get people involved in health coaching?

Incentives can be effective in getting people to engage in health coaching and to succeed in making healthy lifestyle behavior changes. Incentive programs often create opportunities to enroll individuals in prevention and condition management programs who otherwise might not be motivated to engage.

What are the different ways to work with a health coach?

Historically, the most common health coaching interaction is one-on-one, telephone-based coaching sessions. But health coaching can also be done online and there can be coaching sessions on-site for individuals and groups.

Why is health coaching effective?

Building on the foundation of a supportive and trusting relationship, health coaches enhance motivation and commitment, provide targeted information, tools and resources, and add in the right balance of challenge and accountability — all tailored to the needs and preferences of the individual. This combination of features has shown to be both highly regarded by and effective for participants and is also uncommon in traditional helping relationships.

In what areas can health coaches be most effective?

Health coaches specialize in the delivery of a wide spectrum of lifestyle programs for improving nutrition, increasing physical activity, quitting smoking or other tobacco use, managing weight, managing stress, creating work-life balance, and more. They also deliver programs designed to help individuals better manage chronic health conditions such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension, asthma and depression, to name a few.