The Potential of Health Coaching

The charts stretched along the counter in a seemingly endless line. It was the queue of patients who had checked in and were waiting to be seen at the walk-in clinic where I was working that day, and there were more continuing to flow through the door. I was the solo doctor on duty. The waiting room was packed with people of all ages: coughing, sneezing, pacing because of back pain, scratching rashes, and everything in between. My assistant estimated our wait time was about 3.5 hours, and that’s if I was fast. Really fast. Five-minutes-a-patient kind of fast. If I went to the restroom or took a brief break to gobble down some food, that would only prolong the wait. My encounters with patients were brief, perfunctory, and focused on finding a solution as quickly as possible. The worst part? This wasn’t an unusual situation. It was like this every time I did a shift there.

Needless to say, it was not a place I enjoyed working. I didn’t stay there long.

During my career as a family doctor, I have worked at many different practices and clinics, in many different cities, within three different provinces (Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia). The clinic I just described in small-town Ontario was particularly extreme, but many regular family practices carry the same flavor: hurry up, churn through a long list, do what you can to deal with people’s concerns as efficiently as possible, then move on to the next room.

It’s a “sick care” model, sadly. I’m hardly the first to make that observation, but I certainly feel the effects.

And the real frustration comes from knowing that so much illness could be prevented if I had more time with people.

Weight issues, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety, autoimmune disease, liver disease, osteoporosis: so many of these (and more) are lifestyle-preventable issues. But lifestyle change isn’t easy.

Unfortunately, our system is not set up for a family doctor to spend a lot of time with every patient, guiding them through the complex process of changing their lifestyle, mindset, behavior, habits, and as a result, health and well-being. The infrastructure is just not there to support people through the lifestyle changes that would help prevent and reverse disease.

But there is a solution, and I believe it has a ton of potential: health and wellness coaching.

THE COACH APPROACH

A health coach works closely with clients to support them in achieving their health goals—whether those goals are to lose weight, manage stress, tame a digestive issue, or any other client-directed health goal. A health coach takes a holistic approach with her clients. She mentors, inspires, supports, and connects with her clients on multiple levels. She collaborates with them to set goals, and then coaches them through the barriers, habit, and mindset issues that prevent significant lifestyle change.

She works with clients to peel back the layers of habit and blocking mindsets that are preventing a person from making significant lifestyle change. A health coach can take a doctor’s recommendation for what a person needs to do, a client’s motivation to change, and help catalyze some major life changes. It takes time and it takes skill. But done well, it can be incredibly effective.

WHY DOES THE WORLD NEED HEALTH COACHES?

It’s no secret that chronic illnesses are a modern epidemic, and it’s also no secret that a lot of them are preventable through lifestyle.

Many people have been advised by their doctors to make changes: lose weight, get more exercise, quit smoking…but most of us need more specific guidance and support than that. Making change is difficult. Even when you’re motivated.

Prescribing change is not enough.

I learned this early on: it doesn’t work to scold people. To command people to lose weight and get in shape, or to simply provide information about what to eat and what not to eat. People are not lacking in the knowledge about what to do. Bookstore shelves positively groan under the weight of health and nutrition books. There are TV shows, magazine articles, blog posts.

It’s not that people don’t want to get healthy—they do.

But wanting to do something doesn’t always translate into action. It’s much more complex than that.

There’s an enormous gap between knowing what needs to happen, and manifesting that change—which is exactly where a health coach comes in.

And, for what it’s worth, this is not simply my opinion on the subject of health coaches. There’s research to back me up.

A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine showed the effectiveness of health coaching as a complementary tool to help patients self-manage their health. They demonstrated that when health coaches were an integrated member of a primary care team, patients experienced significant improvements in their cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes control. The authors had this to say:

“Health coaching, provided by a member of a primary care team trained to support patient engagement in chronic disease self-management, is a promising intervention that helps offset the heavy workload placed on primary care providers for chronic disease management.”*

I’ve experienced the power of coaching myself, for my own health. When I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes in my second pregnancy, my maternity doctor referred me to a multidisciplinary diabetes clinic. There, I was taken into the fold, spending an entire morning working one-on-one with a nurse and then a dietitian who both functioned very much like a coach. I felt supported and empowered; I learned how to manage my situation and make the changes I needed. There was no rush, I had lots of time, and there was plenty of follow-up. I think I was the healthiest I’ve ever been during that pregnancy.

HOW DOES A HEALTH COACH FUNCTION?

The coach approach is unique. Coaching is not counseling. It’s not advising, and it’s certainly not preaching. A health coach starts where the client is, and goes from there. A health coach considers each client as a whole being, and looks at all aspects of a person’s life. Working together, a coach and client create goals and objectives, and the coach supports the client through the whole process of working toward those goals.

Everyone has barriers. Everyone has personal challenges and issues that stop them from doing the things that would help them improve their health. And a coach, working one on one with people can address those challenges to help people achieve true and lasting health.

MY DREAM OUTCOME

I believe in the role of health and wellness coaching. I think it could make a massive difference. In my fantasies, I would love for a health coach to be attached to every family practice, and a health coaching department in every hospital or health center.

I want this for all the thousands of patients I have seen over the years who could have deeply used this approach. I want this for all the people whose health could benefit in years to come, and for all the potential health coaches out there who are ready to change their own lives forever and make a meaningful impact.

If you’re one of those people—someone with an interest in wellness, perhaps, who is intrigued by the idea of the health coaching field, but not sure where to start—I’d love for you to download my free mini-guide: How To Become A Health Coach.

*American Academy of Family Physicians

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