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Adding a Health Coach to Your Team

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As any athlete will tell you, good coaches make all the difference. They inspire confidence, impart knowledge, and motivate their players. The same is true in health care: Private practices and medical groups that have added a health coach to their team have reported higher patient satisfaction and improved clinical outcomes.

Health coaches, who are often registered nurses, social workers, or medical assistants, are trained to pick up where the 15-minute office visit leaves off, helping patients become active participants in their own care. They provide patient education, teach disease-management skills, and answer questions about prescribed therapies.

“A coach is able to go back and review with patients what was important from their visit and expand upon a concept that their physician maybe couldn’t spend the time doing,” says Mott Blair, MD, a family physician in Wallace, NC, who hired a health coach at his 3-provider practice 2 years ago.

Health coaches may also help patients navigate the health care system, offer emotional support, function as a cultural bridge, and connect patients with community resources, all while maintaining close communication with the patient’s physician.

Health coaching is particularly effective in treating chronic illness, Blair adds, noting that his practice’s health coach is specifically trained to help their large population of patients with diabetes. “She can spend an hour sitting with patients and helping them manage their illness,” he says, adding that his practice's health coach also flags patients who have been discharged from the hospital to ensure that they follow up with an appointment and identifies patients who are due for blood tests, mammography, and preventive check-ups.

Most health insurers do not directly reimburse for services provided by a health coach. But Trissa Torres, MD, a preventive medicine physician and senior vice president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, says that private practices can defray the expense in several ways.

For example, practices that obtain certification as a patient-centered medical home often secure a bump in reimbursement from third-party payers. Some insurance contracts also provide additional reimbursement—or shared savings—in certain cases. “It’s not a direct fee-for-service reimbursement, but it can provide additional resources to help pay for a coach,” explains Torres.

In the fight to curtail rising costs and improve patient outcomes, health coaches are likely to become an integral part of the health care team.