Health Coaches Aim to Stem Chronic Disease Issues for the Uninsured

Mar 16, 2016

"You take baby steps. You make the patient feel successful."
Karen Gottlieb

Staying healthy can involve more than just visiting the doctor. Sometimes it means lifestyle changes, and those can be difficult to implement. 

In fact, it’s estimated that patients who simply fail to take their medications costs the health care system $300 billion annually, never mind those who need more challenging behavior changes like taking exercise or eating better.

That’s where the new field of health coaching steps in. But health coaches have traditionally been only for those with insurance, or who can afford private help.

Now Connecticut based non-profit Americares has two health coaches at its free clinic in Danbury, to help uninsured patients suffering from chronic diseases.

Karen Gottlieb, executive director of Americares' free clinics, said at least two-thirds of clinic visits are made because of chronic diseases. "Although we deliver I think very high quality medical care, that is not often enough to change the tide on somebody with diabetes, let's say," she said.

What's needed, she said, is to help the patient be better informed, and closely involved in their own care plan. That's where the health coach steps in.

"It's not enough to say to a patient: you've got to exercise. That's not going to change anything," Gottlieb told WNPR. "So what we do with health coaching, we meet with the patient at least every month, sometimes more often than that. We help them set their own action plan. They talk to the health coach, and they say, well, I can't walk a mile today, but I can walk around the block twice. And you take baby steps. You make the patient feel successful."

The two health coach positions have been funded by the Cares Foundation of drug company Boehringer Ingelheim, which has its North American headquarters in Ridgefield. The foundation is a long time partner of Americares in the clinic effort.

Lilly Ackley, president of the BI Cares Foundation, said they’re focused on serving low-income, uninsured patients who don’t have other resources.

"What we wanted to do was see how we could expand our mission of access to health care," Ackley said. Health coaching has been studied and identified as an effective follow-up to primary care. "Imagine that you're receiving a diagnosis for a chronic condition and you don't have coverage. So you're confused; you're concerned; and you're hearing a whole lot of new information. And it may be possible that English is not your primary language. So the health coach experience is a way to really try and improve the health outcomes of people in this situation."

If the Danbury pilot program is successful, the partnership hopes to expand it to more clinics, and to share the results with other organizations.

Americares also runs free clinics in Norwalk, Bridgeport, and Stamford.