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Digital health coaching not here yet; human health coaches predominate

With corporate health coaching expanding fast, human coaches are dominating the field, and autonomous digital health coaching systems are a long way off, according to one expert.

Melinda Huffman is co-founder of the National Society of Health Coaches and a principal of Miller and Huffman Outcome Architects, a health coaching consulting firm in Winchester, Tenn.

Health coaching is fast becoming popular in corporate America, and while digital health coaching technologies are available in some wellness and telemedicine platforms, Huffman's stance is that human health coaches still predominate.

In this Q&A with SearchFinancialApplications, Huffman asserts that live, trained coaches -- sometimes in conjunction with technologies such as connected health devices -- are best equipped to provide motivational coaching support.

How important is technology to corporate health coaching, and how fast is that technology evolving?

Melinda Huffman: Technology has become one of the go-to strategies in corporate wellness and health coaching initiatives. But health coaching is primarily about engaging an individual through conversational skills. The technology piece is an additional part of that. It's kind of a two-pronged approach.

Melinda Huffman, health coachMelinda Huffman

The social context of one's life is how people make healthcare decisions, whether you're an employee, a client, a member or a patient. One of the most important things a health coach does is take what your concern is, and put that into perspective. Especially for chronic conditions, if you have a treatment plan, are you going to follow it? We know that up to 60% of patients don't follow their treatment plans, and up to 50% don't complete their medications. They may not even fill the prescription. They may fill the prescription and not take it.

In terms of how technology can assist the health coach, employers can provide employees with Fitbits or pedometers or apps to help us track progress, track what kind of intervention has happened and share that with each other in a kind of peer coaching to motivate each other. Technology is primarily used to help an individual track their own progress or compare their progress to others in their group, and they can do that anonymously and compare themselves to an aggregate.         

What's the status of specialized coaching apps that use software to perform the coaching function, or that work in conjunction with human coaches?

Huffman: It's still very, very early. We don't see much of that yet, and the reason for that is the scientific basis of motivational coaching is based on your responses to me as a coach. It's not a yes-no algorithm. Because how you respond to me is how I make my next comment.

There are several different responses I could make to you, the patient or the client, and it's based on what you're saying to me and what I know about you. So [digital health coaching] software that would be completely independent is a long way off.

How do health coaching programs work with corporate wellness and well-being programs, other benefits offerings and health insurance plans?

Huffman: We train a lot of Fortune 500 companies, and they have their coaching staff on site, or off site, and we see a lot of self-insured companies reach out to help their staff be prepared to engage employees, rather than having an MCO [managed care organization] or third-party provide coaching.

An MCO may simply call someone a health coach or put them in the role of a health coach, but what they're doing is health teaching, and health teaching is a very small part of health coaching.

How do real-life coaches work with tracking devices, whether they are step counters, connected scales, blood pressure cuffs or glucometers?

Huffman: Individuals will either call in, text or go online to enter that information. Some of those [devices] can be connected via your smartphone. For example, you can directly download your glucometer readings to your phone, and the company can do whatever it chooses with that information, such as trend outcomes, aggregate outcomes or give you feedback on how you fit in relation to others your age and with the same condition.

With all these devices, and getting the data from point A to point B, whether it's a software interface or platform, that's only a part. That's just the data. That itself is not health coaching.
Melinda Huffmanhealth coach

In health coaching, as the National Society of Health Coaching defines it, there must be somebody else to engage you. The bottom line of health coaching is tapping into [the patient's] own self-motivation. [With connected devices] your doctor is just depending on you to have enough motivation to do what you're supposed to do and share the information with them.

With all these devices, and getting the data from point A to point B, whether it's a software interface or platform, that's only a part. That's just the data. That itself is not health coaching. There has to be someone there to do the coaching, whether it's over FaceTime or Skype or email or texting. But there's got to be someone there who has been trained in the skill of motivational interviewing.

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