Shots - Health Blog
4:12 am
Mon July 23, 2012

An Alaska Company Losing The Obesity Game Calls In Health Coaches

Originally published on Tue July 24, 2012 1:52 pm

Every morning, Shannon Orley parks as far away as possible from her office in Anchorage, Alaska. And on the sprawling Providence Alaska Medical Center campus that is really far away.

"Right around 1,000 steps each way. Definitely worth it," Orley says.

Two years ago, Orley was obese. And she faced a dilemma. She had just taken a job helping coordinate Providence's employee wellness program. But her own wellness was far off track. She drank the equivalent of six sodas a day, loved fast food and didn't exercise much. So she decided to take advantage of one of the hospital's new benefits – health coaching.

Health coaches are a new kind of health professional, and it's their job to help people make those easy-to-say, hard-to-do behavioral changes that promote good health — getting enough exercise, eating a balanced diet, and managing stress.

At first, the lifestyle changes Orley made were very small.

"We started out where my goal was to take the stairs instead of the elevator once a day. Not even more than that but just really manageable," she said.

Soon Orley was drinking more water and less soda. She began walking regularly and attending Pilates classes. She kicked her fast food habit. She lost 50 pounds.

Last year, 300 of Providence's 2,800 employees in Anchorage tried health coaching. Orley's coach, Kelly Heithold, says her clients have finally made the decision to change.

"When they actually make that step and make an appointment with me, they're ready," Heithold said. "And they say, 'Help me. I know what I need to do, I just don't know how to get there.'"

Health coaches are still rare in the medical profession. But they are becoming more popular as chronic and often preventable diseases like Type 2 diabetes consume more and more health care dollars.

Tammy Green heads up Providence's extensive employee wellness program. She thinks coaches are an important piece of the health care puzzle that's been missing.

"Everybody wants to be healthy," Green says. "We just have not been able to help them achieve those goals with our traditional approach."

In three years of health coaching, Providence has seen a small but steady decrease in the number of obese employees – from 36 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2011. Green says blood pressure and cholesterol levels are lower, and fewer employees are smoking.

"Something's happening and you can pretty much assure yourself that if we hadn't been doing anything, we certainly wouldn't be seeing those trends," Green says.

Margaret Moore agrees that health coaches are a good investment. Moore founded Wellcoaches Corporation in 2000, a Massachusetts-based company that has trained most of the country's 6,000 health coaches.

"There's a reasonable army now of health professionals that have become coaches in this last ten years," Moore said.

She expects the profession to grow steadily. Especially now that Medicare has started paying for up to 20 obesity counseling sessions a year. But Moore acknowledges there's debate in the medical field over whether health coaching should be a separate profession or just a new skill set for existing providers. She thinks there's room for both.

Back at Providence, Shannon Orley has reached an intersection on her walk to work. And like a former smoker trying to resist a nicotine urge, she has an important choice to make: the elevator or the stairs.

"You know every time I go to reach for the elevator button there's a little voice in the back of my head asking me, 'Really, is this going to make you feel better? Is this part of your goal? Is this where you're headed?" she said.

With her coach's help, healthful choices have started to feel better and better.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Adults who need some motivation to make healthy changes in their lives can hire a health coach. Alaska Public Radio's Annie Feidt reports on a hospital that's hiring health coaches for its employees.

ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: Every morning, Shannon Orley parks as far away as possible from her office. And on this sprawling Providence hospital complex in Anchorage, that is really far away.

SHANNON ORLEY: Around a thousand steps each way. Definitely worth it.

FEIDT: It's cold on a recent morning. But thanks to the hospital's extensive system of enclosed walkways, Orley's walk is mostly indoors, with impressive views of the Chugach Mountains along the way.

ORLEY: It's beautiful and you see moose a lot of times on the trails underneath the sky bridge.

FEIDT: Two years ago, Orley was obese. And she faced a dilemma. She had just taken a job helping coordinate Providence's employee wellness program. But her own wellness was far off track. She drank the equivalent of six sodas a day, loved fast food and rarely exercised. So she decided to take advantage of one of the hospital's new benefits - health coaching. At first, the lifestyle changes her coach advised her to make were very small.

ORLEY: My goal was just to take the stairs instead of the elevator once a day, not even more than that but, you know, just really manageable.

FEIDT: Soon Orley was drinking more water and less soda. She began walking regularly and attending Pilates classes. She kicked her fast food habit. She lost 50 pounds.

ORLEY: I've realized how much less joint pain I have, you know, overall just I feel more energetic.

FEIDT: And she's got company. Last year 300 of Providence's 2,800 employees in Anchorage tried health coaching. Orley's coach, Kelly Heithold, says her clients are motivated to change.

KELLY HEITHOLD: When they actually make an appointment with me, they're ready. And they say, help me. I know what I need to do I just don't know how to get there.

FEIDT: Health coaches are becoming more popular as chronic and often preventable diseases like Type 2 diabetes consume more and more health care dollars.

Tammy Green is Orley's boss. She says coaches are an important piece of the health care puzzle that's been missing since, as she puts it, nobody wants to be overweight.

TAMMY GREEN: We've kind of had this traditional approach that people don't want to change. But, really, at the core, everybody wants to be healthy. They really do. We just have not been able to help them achieve those goals with our traditional approach.

FEIDT: It may be working. In three years of health coaching, Providence has seen a small but steady decrease in the number of obese employees - from 36 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2011. Green says blood pressure and cholesterol levels are lower. And fewer employees are smoking. She says it's a good start.

GREEN: Something's happening and you can pretty much assure yourself that if we had not been doing anything, we certainly wouldn't be seeing those kind of trends.

FEIDT: Green is convinced health coaches are a good investment. Margaret Moore agrees. She founded Wellcoaches Corporation, where most of the country's health coaches, about 6,000 so far, have trained. She expects the profession to grow. Especially since Medicare has started paying for up to 20 obesity counseling sessions a year.

MARGARET MOORE: There's some ways to go for this to become mainstream, but there's a reasonable army now of health professionals that have become coaches in this last 10 years.

FEIDT: But Moore acknowledges there's debate in the medical field over whether health coaching should be a separate profession or just a new skill set for existing providers. She thinks there's room for both.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

FEIDT: At Providence, Shannon Orley has reached an intersection on her walk to work. And like a former smoker trying to resist a nicotine urge, it's a moment of choice for her.

ORLEY: As you can see on the left side, we have our bank of elevators all ready to rock. On the right side, we have the stairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

(SOUNDBITE OF WALKING)

FEIDT: This time, Orley walks the two flights to her office. She says some days it's a tough decision. But with her coach's help, healthy choices have started to feel better and better.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

INSKEEP: This story is part of a collaboration with NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network, and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.