Weight Loss on the Line

Featured Article, News and Advice, Power to the Patient, Weight Loss
on April 24, 2012

Sometimes you just need a pep talk to keep you going—especially when it comes to losing weight. A kind word from a stranger or a compliment from a friend can be a nice short-term motivation to get you out the door to the gym or to the grocery store for some healthy ingredients.

But what if you need more than just a pick-up here and there? Could that help be just a phone call away?

A study that recently appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 40 percent of obese patients enrolled in a telephone-based weight-loss coaching program were able to lose at least five percent of their body weight—a significant amount that had an impact on their health, including their cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

The program was called the POWER trial, which stands for Practice-Based Opportunities for Weight Reduction. The study was led by Dr. Lawrence Appel, professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which has collaborated with health improvement company Healthways to launch a commercially available version of the program called Innergy.

“The No. 1 thing that it provides is convenience,” says Nathan King, a Healthways senior leader who oversees Innergy. “It means they can do it from anywhere.”

A program like Hopkins’ allows people in rural areas, or other situations where it’s logistically difficult to attend regular in-person sessions, to speak with a coach from the privacy of their home. But the idea likely appeals to anyone who struggles to fit in regular doctor or coach visits.

Another major benefit of this type of coaching is the accountability factor, says Dr. Robert Jeffery, director of the Obesity Prevention Center at the University of Minnesota.

“I like the analogy of alarm clocks,” he says. “The reason people use alarm clocks is that they don’t trust themselves to wake up by themselves. You want to follow your diet, and one way to make sure you’re not going to forget about it is to arrange to have somebody call you on the telephone and say, ‘How’d you do?’”

Jon Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, notes that telephone check-ins are also used effectively for other purposes, such as with congestive heart failure patients. It helps people by keeping them in more regular contact with their health care providers in case anything goes wrong.

But can telephonic health coaching be as effective as face-to-face? Yes, says Melinda Huffman, a nurse and the co-founder of the National Society of Health Coaches. But she notes that the quality of the interaction and the effectiveness of the coach matter more than the medium. So it’s important to properly vet such a program before you sign on.

Healthways will launch its telephone-based program for its clients in May, with plans to expand to a broader audience next year. In the meantime, if the idea appeals to you, first check with your employer or insurance provider to see if they offer any type of telephone counseling for weight-loss, nutrition or general health. Many companies are increasingly adding such benefits to encourage preventive health and keep healthcare costs low. You can also ask your doctor if he knows of similar free or low-cost resources.

Look for programs that are affiliated with major hospitals or universities, or an established weight-loss program. Jenny Craig began offering phone-counseling services to its clients in 2006.