Do You Need a Health Coach?

Daily Health Solutions, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Power to the Patient
on December 6, 2011

If high school was the last time you had a coach, maybe it’s time to find another one.

Health coaches trained to help you form new habits and support you along the way may be the key to losing those pounds, managing stress or sticking with that fitness program once and for all, say wellness experts.

How health coaching works

A health coach does not give medical advice. Your physician may recommend some overarching changes that you should make to your lifestyle, but he might not have time to spend helping you work on changing your behavior. So it becomes the coach’s job to help you figure out how to lose those 30 pounds or become more physically active.

When working with a coach, “you’re much more likely to find solutions than you are on your own,” says Margaret Moore, co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean/Harvard Medical School and founder/CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation.

Many coaches begin their relationships with new clients by using a technique called motivational interviewing to suss out their goals. After that, a coach might help you create a list of concrete steps you can take to meet your goals. If you want to lose weight, your coach might help you sketch out an exercise schedule. If you want to reduce your stress level, your coach might guide you to some resources on meditation techniques. After that, your coach will check in with you on regular intervals to gauge your progress and help you make any necessary changes.

“A health coach can be very useful to an individual who knows what they ‘should’ be doing but is either stuck or just doesn’t feel motivated to take that first step,” says Susan Butterworth, an associate professor at Oregon Health & Sciences University, who has reviewed health coaching techniques.

What to ask a potential coach

It’s important to find the right coach for you and your situation. If you select a coach and it just never “clicks,” you may want to consider looking for a different one because a good relationship is very important to success.

There’s not yet a national certification program for health coaches, although Moore reports that her organization is working on that goal with the International Coach Federation. However, if you’re looking for a coach, you might want to consider asking the following questions:

  1. What kind of training did you receive to become a coach?
  2. How many other clients have you coached?
  3. What other training or experience do you have that might be relevant to my situation?

“If an individual has one or more health conditions, it may be helpful to work with a health coach who has a clinical background to be sure that their action plan or choices take that health complication into consideration,” adds Butterworth.

Where to find a coach

In some cases, coaches are integrated into the primary care team, as they are with the family medicine program at the University of California, San Francisco. In those situations, they can act as a bridge between the patient and the physician, notes Dr. Heather Bennett, a UCSF family practice resident.

“They can also alert the patient and the provider when there’s a red flag situation that really needs professional medical attention,” she said.

However, not every practice has a health coach on staff, which means that you may have to seek out a coach on your own. And in that case, coaching services may not be covered by your insurance, so you should check with your health care plan to see what’s covered. You can still ask your health care provider for health coach recommendations, or you can seek out a trained coach through one of the following well-established training programs: