Should you have a Health Coach? People who use them have almost universally positive experiences, says Harvard physician

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How many of us can say this about our doctor:  He/she is deeply committed to my well-being. As I grow older it’s thrilling to know I’m heard and cared for, that there’s somebody out there who’s really interested in me and knows me . . . and is on call to help whenever I have problems or questions.

Given medicine’s supply side problem, probably too few of us. However, a growing cohort of younger physician’s such as BC’s Brandon Tang are going public with the problem, what they call the hidden pandemic in healthcare: assembly-line medicine. The fast-paced high volume system that leaves a patient waiting hours for 10 minutes of the doctor’s time. The upshot, says Tang, is distracted time-stressed physicians who dread going to work because they know they’re not doing their job properly; for example, by the de facto limiting of patients to one issue per visit.

Enter, the health coach, one of the new players in the growing trend of transforming primary care medicine into a team sport that shares the workload, is more patient centered, and is grounded on the following rationale:

The widespread failure of current medical practice to reflect the recent advances in knowledge of risk factors for chronic disease and their effective modification through lifestyle intervention undoubtedly results in avoidable death, disability, and human suffering.

Here’s Harvard physician Peter Grinspoon describing what they do:

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.

To the point, it’s now understood that for the patient with a chronic condition to succeed they need more support than what they get at the doctor’s office: “The doctor may tell a patient ‘eat less, exercise more, take your medicine and come back in three months,’ but not how to execute this plan,” says Rushika Fernandopulle, a primary care doctor in Hyannis, Mass.

Grinspoon says health coaches help with a wide variety of health issues such as weight loss, stress reduction, the management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and diverticular disease, improving diet and exercise, tobacco cessation, addiction, and adjusting to a life-altering health event, like a heart attack.

And, crucial in the age of Covid, coaching can be equally effective whether it’s done in person, over the phone, or by videoconferencing.

Having worked with patients who have used health coaching, Grinspoon jumped at the chance to become one himself when his hospital put out word that it was looking for physicians who might wish to undergo training. He explains:

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.

Hence the kind words in the first paragraph, above – those are the voices of patients describing, not their doctors, but their health coaches.

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