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Integrative Health Coaches Help Patients Achieve Personal Health Goals

Armen Hareyan's picture

Working with a personal health coach is increasingly recognized as an effective strategy for achieving health goals and improving overall well-being.

The need for health coaches has grown exponentially in recent years as the demands of balancing work and life stresses have taken a toll on personal health. Coupled with an aging population, a growing number of people are seeking assistance in efforts to improve their health by addressing such issues as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess weight, while others simply need help optimizing their overall well-being.

"Healthcare has long been about 'fixing' people - treating disease to return a person's body and mind to an acceptable state of health," said Julie Kosey, MS, CPCC, ACC, integrative health coaching manager at Duke Integrative Medicine. "And separately, people have sought the support and guidance of coaches in a wide range of disciplines, such as athletics, career and life, to help them move to new levels. Health coaching brings these two worlds - healthcare and personal coaching - together."

Duke Integrative Medicine is the first major academic medical center to take the emerging field of health coaching to a new level by developing a specific role for the integrative health coach on the clinical team. By drawing from different coaching disciplines as well as integrative medicine principles, the integrative health coach helps clients improve their health and enhance the quality of their lives.

Integrative health coaching is a critical element of the "personalized health plan," which practitioners at Duke Integrative Medicine help patients to develop and implement. Offered at its new state-of-the-art building - designed specifically for healing - patients participate in an intensive "immersion" program. Together with Duke physicians and healthcare professionals, each patient develops an individualized plan tailored to his or her needs. After the patient leaves the center, this plan serves as a blueprint for the patient and health coach as they continue to work together for months or even years.

"As part of Duke Integrative Medicine's innovative model, coaches assist patients in recognizing their inherent creativity and resourcefulness, and help them use these to attain their wellness and life goals," said Ruth Q. Wolever, Ph.D., director of research at Duke Integrative Medicine and assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke Medical Center. "Rather than simply motivating them, effective coaches help their patients find inspiration by connecting them with what matters most in their lives."

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Wolever added that clinical research is demonstrating that coaching increases adherence to health goals by helping patients sustain the mindset needed to make lifestyle and behavior changes for the long haul. For instance, a study funded by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services and conducted by Duke Integrative Medicine showed that integrative medicine principles, along with the assistance of health coaching in supporting behavior change, improved cardiovascular risk compared with usual care.

"By identifying reasons for making changes and setting realistic goals, patients are more likely to stick to a long-term program," she said. "Patients are encouraged to predict obstacles and develop strategies for accessing inner motivation. They learn how to use their personal values and purpose to support day-to-day behavior changes."

Currently, there are various options for health and wellness coaching training. The International Coach Federation (ICF) accredits coach training programs and offers its own credentialing process for coaches. While ICF and other organizations such as The Coaches Training Institute have subgroups dedicated to wellness and mind, body and spirit disciplines, there currently is no formal certification for integrative health coaches.

"At Duke Integrative Medicine, we are exploring the training that might standardize integrative health coaching so that, as the demand grows, there will be consistency in education, skills and experience among coaches to help clients achieve their health goals," Kosey said.

She added, however, that Duke Integrative Medicine coaches have a graduate degree in health behavior, training in coaching skills from programs accredited by ICF, experience helping clients change health behavior both individually and in groups, and knowledge of integrative medicine and health.

"Skills, education and training are clearly important in helping patients meet their goals," Kosey said. "But the comfort level a person has with his or her coach is just as important. The patient-coach relationship is very intimate, so trust and respect are critical components."

To help patients determine if a coach is right for them, Kosey says they should consider the following key questions: