Imagine being given the keys to a complex, high-tech car and told to drive it across the country with minimal instruction and no manual. That’s what it can feel like to be told you have diabetes, asthma, kidney disease, or some other complex chronic condition.
Take diabetes as an example. People diagnosed with this lifelong condition have to do a lot more to manage it than take medication. It’s a day in and day out process of monitoring blood sugar levels along with every bit of food consumed. Months can go by between doctor visits, with many people floundering in their attempts at self-management and falling off course with their care plans. Others, feeling overwhelmed, forget to follow up with providers, miss medication doses, and don’t eat healthily or exercise.
Chronic disease is a thorn in our nation’s side. About half of US adults have at least one chronic disease, while one-quarter of us have two or more of them. Chronic diseases are costly to treat, accounting for a staggering 86 percent of our national health care costs. Perhaps most perplexing is that chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis happen to be the most preventable — yet chronic disease is still the nation’s leading cause of death and disability.
Health coaching is a useful tool for managing chronic diseases. It isn’t new. But it is increasingly being seen as an effective way to influence and support long-lasting behavior changes in patients with chronic disease, especially complex ones like diabetes or addiction. A health coach can be the advocate that patients and providers need to help empower individuals to take control of their health through disease education and consistent support.
Research shows that the extra human touch from health coaches can have an extraordinary impact. Individuals who can offer health education to patients as well as build relationships based on trust and unequivocal support can be game changers in the management of chronic disease.
As powerful as the patient-coach connection can be, technology can extend it and further individualize care. Many companies, including my own, Welkin Health, are now using technology to widen the reach of health coaching and deliver its benefits to more people living with chronic conditions.
Say a person living with diabetes has questions that come up on a daily basis — can I eat this piece of cake or enjoy a burger at a friend’s barbecue? Or perhaps someone managing addiction is having a rough day and just needs a few words of encouragement to stay on track. These individuals can contact their personal health coach via phone, email, text, or video conference — whatever means they prefer. Today’s technology puts this support a fingertip away.
Taking it a step further, many of the platforms that help connect health coaches to patients also capture essential data that can be analyzed and used to further personalize their care. Every person is unique — what works for one may not work for another — so the ability to personalize care increases the odds that health goals will be met.
This more personalized approach to care for people with chronic illness will be increasingly important as the health care industry undergoes broad changes. The transition to value-based care will require treatments that meet patient needs and improve health with reporting of real-world outcomes. Health coaching with a technology platform makes it easier to track results over time, and can help identify the long-term improvements in health outcomes that everyone in the health care industry is striving to achieve.
The benefits of technology-assisted health coaching for improving health outcomes and lowering overall health care costs are clear. However, uncertainty around changes in health care policies and incentives make it challenging to get the support necessary for widespread adoption of this approach for chronic disease care.
At the end of the day, healthier people cost less to care for. And preventive health, especially for chronic diseases, is the best kind of health care.
Chase Hensel is the CEO and cofounder of Welkin Health, which makes a software platform for life science companies that work with health coaches.