Health coaching can motivate big changes

MUN study looking for volunteers

Published on January 19, 2013
Heather Pitcher
— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

With January half over, it can be easy to conveniently forget about those pesky New Year's resolutions. But if you still want to get - or stay - healthy, a health coach could be just the motivation you're looking for.

Like a traditional coach, health coaches focus on goal setting, identifying issues, motivating and building strong personal support systems.

"A coach, historically, was something that transported someone from one place to another," said Heather Pitcher, a certified health coach and registered nurse. "And that's what health coaching is, a journey in changing perspective."

Pitcher is involved in a study being conducted by the Primary Healthcare Research Unit at Memorial University that looks at the role health coaching has on preventing and delaying disease, particularly diabetes and high blood pressure.

There isn't much research on the potential impact of health coaching, Pitcher said.

But the personalized approach could bring significant results for patients, or clients, as they're called by health coaches.

"It's very much a partnership, but the clients definitely dictate the approach," Pitcher explained. "It's individualized, a reflective process that examines their world view."

Health coaching is meant to complement traditional medical treatment by a doctor and is not counselling or therapy, Pitcher said.

"There can be limited time for conversations with doctors and nurses."

That's where health coaches come in. They meet with clients one-on-one, figure out goals and develop a plan for achieving them. Sessions can be held in person or over the phone, depending on what works best for the client's schedule and needs.

"It really is a partnering with a caring individual," Pitcher said.

So, what happens in a health coaching session?

While Pitcher stressed a case-by-case approach, a recent article in Time magazine described a possible scenario where a health coach helps break down performance and identifies specific areas for improvement.

For example, if a client was struggling with food portion control because his or her growing teens are coming back to the dinner table for seconds and thirds and it can be tempting to join in, a health coach might help the client figure out various approaches to the problem, according to the article.

Or someone with a family history of diabetes might work with a health coach to come up with strategies for prevention tailored specifically to the client's personality, goals and learning style.

"The traditional method was always to administer and prescribe," said Pitcher. "When we 'know' how to do something we usually stop looking for another way."

Health coaching is a new approach that holds promise in helping treat diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Pitcher said.

Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest prevalence of diabetes in the country, with 6.5 per cent of the population diagnosed, according to Public Health Agency of Canada's latest report on diabetes.

Rates of heart disease in eastern and northern Newfoundland are more than 50 per cent above the national average.

The MUN study is looking for people who are at risk of developing diabetes or high blood pressure, and/or are overweight, Pitcher said.

To qualify, participants must be between 40 and 60 years old, not have a current diagnosis of diabetes or high blood pressure, be pre-diabetic and/or pre-hypertensive (screening is performed in the MUN clinic) and/or be overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30.

The study is a randomized control trial, which means participants will be randomly divided into two groups, Pitcher said.

One group receives usual care by their doctor and the other group receives usual care by their doctor in addition to health coaching by Pitcher.

Participants in the group that receives health coaching will have two group meetings and four individual health coaching sessions over six months. Telephone coaching is available as well, and there is a final followup of the study after one year, Pitcher said. The overall time commitment would be about 15 hours, she said.

The study is looking for 200 volunteers. Contact Heather Pitcher at 709-777-6225 or email