Meet Health Coaching Director Cheryl Walker: Integrative Care, Motivational Interviewing Future Trends

Thursday, June 7th, 2012
This post was written by Cheryl Miller

This month’s inside look at the director of the nation’s first master’s degree program for health and wellness coaching.

Meet Cheryl Walker, ML, MCC, Academic Director for Tai Sophia Institute’s Master of Arts in Health and Wellness Coaching.

HIN: Describe the Health and Wellness Coaching Program at Tai Sophia Institute.

Cheryl Walker We are teaching what I like to call the “art and science of behavior change.” Our students begin the program gaining a basic understanding of what constitutes wellness. Next they learn about behavior change through study of the International Coach Federation coaching competencies. They also learn Motivational Interviewing, an evidence-based model for behavior change, and then complete a 21-hour practicum, where they actually work with clients.

There are four key components that distinguish our program.

First, we teach students the concept that the body is wise. We teach them how to listen to their own bodies, how to key in to their symptoms, and how to understand what is happening so that they can, in turn, teach their clients to do the same.

Second, we teach our students to use nature as a model or a blueprint for health and wellness. When we observe nature we can see a natural rhythm, and if we follow that rhythm we can experience health and healing. For example, winter is a time for quiet and going within. People can ask themselves if this quiet, too, is something that they need, rather than being overly active. Or perhaps, they may need more time to play and be active, qualities experienced in summer. We teach our students how to assess these qualities in themselves so they can teach that to their clients.

The third thing that we teach is that there is a biochemical reaction in the body that happens with the words that we speak. So, when we say things that have a more positive nature, we are actually enhancing health. When we speak words that are more negative, we can actually, if we tune in, feel our body shut down. We teach our students to have a high level of awareness of what they’re speaking, how they speak it, and how to begin to choose words that generate health.

Finally, the other distinguishing piece to our coaching program, (and to all of our programs at Tai Sophia) is that we teach our students how to be a healing presence for others. Over the years people have consistently told us that when they walked into the office of a practitioner who graduated from Tai Sophia, they started to feel better right away. When we really looked at that experience and pulled it apart, we discovered that we really were teaching our students how to establish rapport with clients and how to have a compelling presence and demeanor that actually inspires change. So we began to purposefully teach healing presence as an integral part of our program.

I also want to emphasize that all of our courses in our coaching program have been approved by the International Coach Federation (ICF), enabling our graduates to apply to become certified coaches through the ICF. Right now, ICF is the gold standard professional organization of coaches.

What drove Tai Sophia Institute to create this program?

We have always been on the cutting edge of innovative practices in health and wellness, so establishing a health and wellness coaching program seemed like a natural next step for us as well.

On a national level, all of us are aware that we are facing an extremely large health crisis. It’s been widely reported that 70 percent of doctor visits are preventable and are directly related to behavior. Yet, in spite of having more information about how to stay healthy than ever before, we have more chronic illness. Studies show that although education is an important component, it’s not enough and coaching can be the lynchpin between education and actually helping people make sustainable changes. The Affordable Care Act named health and wellness coaching as a key component to a new healthcare model. As with all our programs at Tai Sophia, we continue to stay on the forefront of the best health and wellness practices.

What led you into the field?

I’ve been an educator all my professional life. Yet, while I know that education is a key component in helping people, I know that education is clearly not enough. I find myself philosophically aligned to the theory and practice of coaching. Coaching is based on positive psychology which focuses on what’s working in a person’s life, rather than what’s broken. Coaching works to build on a person’s successes, and on their values; it looks at whatever goals or challenges a person has within the context of his or her whole life and what she or he cares about. Coaching also taps into a person’s intrinsic motivation to change. My experience has been that there’s nothing more thrilling than to work with people and see them have their own epiphanies as to why they get stuck and then see them begin to make positive change.

Who is the main demographic for your program and has it changed?

The demographic for this program has remained pretty consistent. About a third to a half are already healthcare professionals looking to either develop a new skill set or transition to another way of practicing their profession. Others come from the field of human resources and the business world and have an interest in working in corporate wellness programs. And some people have had a long-time interest in wellness and helping other people.

Has the field of health coaching changed in the last five years?

I think the biggest change is that we’re seeing a shift from disease management to true coaching. In other words, the trend is towards putting the client at the center of care, recognizing that the client is the expert and that the role of the professional is to be a partner in the relationship. Another very significant change is the creation of the National Consortium for Credentialing Health and Wellness Coaches (NCCHWC). Harvard, Duke, the University of Minnesota, Wellcoaches Corporation and some others have been involved in defining the field and developing professional standards, scope of practice and a certification process. We at Tai Sophia have also played a part by being on committees on this consortium.

Another trend that I think is very important is that health professional schools now are incorporating coaching into their curriculum. For example, I taught a health coaching course for two semesters to pharmacy students at the School of Pharmacy – Notre Dame of Maryland University. In addition, there have been nursing schools that have approached us about teaching health coaching to their students. It’s definitely an exciting trend that we see developing.

What are the main trends in health coaching now, for example, telephonic or virtual within the PCP office or in private practice?

It seems most coaching is done by phone. Most of our students and alumni are working telephonically, which is very efficient and effective. I’m sure there are people coaching virtually, as well, perhaps, through video cams. I’m not aware of that, but I suspect that’s probably being done. There is also a trend toward primary care physicians working with coaches. I am currently in conversation with a local doctor who is interested in that.

How is social media and technology, I Phone apps for example, affecting health coach delivery?

I know that there are coaches using social media for marketing their practices as well as for forming professional groups. There are also apps for tracking food and diet and exercise.

What trend or path will the field be locking onto for 2012?

I think the most important thing will be working towards a national certification.

Where do you see the industry going beyond that in the next five years?

Again, I think more doctors and other healthcare professionals like chiropractors, acupuncturists, dieticians and nutritionists will incorporate coaches as part of an integrative practice. I also believe there will be a continuation of coaching classes being incorporated into academic professional programs. We are the first school in the country to offer a master’s degree in health and wellness coaching, and I suspect that we’ll see more schools offering it as well.

What do you see as the greatest challenge of health coaching and how is Tai Sophia’s program addressing this challenge?

As with any new field, the main challenge is that it is relatively unknown and the public needs to be educated so they understand the benefits of coaching. Two ways we are meeting this challenge is to stay involved with NCCHWC and be aligned with the best practices in the field, and by developing strategic partners with innovators in healthcare. We are working with our local health department in a statewide demonstration project which is utilizing health coaches to provide community based healthcare. In addition, there’s a free community clinic in Washington D. C. that’s interested in providing internships for our students. We will continue to look for ways to work with progressive organizations and bring credibility to the field.

What is the single most effective workflow process tool or form coaches are using today?

In my opinion, Motivational Interviewing (MI) is the most effective model in behavior change. This process begins by assessing a person’s readiness to change. We can’t assume that everybody is actually ready to change. Motivational interviewing assesses where a person is on a spectrum, and helps them move up the spectrum. Coaches utilizing an MI approach are actively listening to what a person is saying and then reflecting back what they hear. This process helps a person see that they may have ambivalence to actually changing. The reason people have difficulty making behavior change is not because they are lazy or unmotivated. People have difficulty because there is some ambivalence to change of which they are unaware. Through questioning and listening you can reveal some level of ambivalence to change. And once that’s discovered, a person is freed up to start to move forward. MI also looks at how important change is to a person, and how confident they are that they can change. For instance, a person may say they want to stop smoking, and in fact it’s important to them because they may have developed some health issues, but they don’t yet have the confidence that they can change. So we work with them to increase their confidence level.

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