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Health coaching is effective. Should you try it?

In the fall of 2019, my hospital put out word that it was looking for physicians who might wish to undergo intensive training to become certified health and wellness coaches. Having worked with patients who have used health coaching, I jumped at the chance. Their experiences were almost universally positive: many of them had attained health goals that had been otherwise elusive, such as the weight loss they invoked annually — and fruitlessly — as a New Year’s resolution. The few physicians I knew who were also coaches seemed to be able to fuse the different skill sets in a way that expanded their ability to connect with their patients and address their health needs on a deeper level.

What is health coaching?

Just as a sports coach can help an athlete develop and excel at a sport, a health and wellness coach can help anyone excel at living their life, even — or especially — if they have chronic medical conditions. The coaching process is similar to talk therapy in that it involves two people discussing ideas and issues, but it is different in that the person who is being coached is in the driver’s seat, creating their goals as well as the strategies on how to arrive at these goals.

People tend to hire health coaches to help them with a broad variety of health issues, such as weight loss, stress reduction, the management of chronic conditions, improving diet and exercise, tobacco cessation, addiction, and adjusting to a life-altering health event, like a heart attack. There is overlap between what a health coach does and what a life coach does, but a life coach’s domain is much broader, and includes career issues, executive coaching, and professional effectiveness.

Coaches use motivational interviewing techniques

A key technique utilized by coaches is motivational interviewing, in which a coach asks open-ended questions intended to help their client elicit his or her own reasons for change. Instead of the doctor saying, “You need to lose weight,” a coach might ask, “How might your life be different if you lost the weight that you’ve been trying to lose?” The concept, which has been proven effective in many research studies, is that people who are changing for their own reasons, on their own terms, are far more likely to succeed when compared with someone telling them what to do — which is less motivating and is more likely to instill resistance to change.

Motivational interviewing has been creeping into the medical profession as well, with great success. With the intensive focus on it I received in my coaching training, I now put it in the forefront in my interactions with patients, trying to really hear what they are saying and to engage them as much as possible in coming up with solutions for the various health issues that arise. Patients seem to genuinely appreciate this, and while I haven’t conducted a study, this approach certainly seems successful in terms of both my relationships with patients and the results I am seeing.

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Written by Shobha


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