Tips for primary care physicians interested in wellness coaching

June 25, 2018

Helping others with their health and nutrition is a logical task for physicians. Here’s how to get started as a wellness coach.

Wellness coaching is a growing field that is attracting doctors as a supplement to or as a replacement for medical practice. Primary care doctors, in particular, are well suited for this type of work because of the inherent experience with integrating overall health with day-to-day wellness. 

The motivation for branching out into coaching varies from one physician to another. For example, Nancy Whatley, MD, an anesthesiologist fromAsheville, N.C., has been practicing for almost 30 years and has seen many changes in medicine that interfered with the traditional doctor-patient relationship. These changes are what motivated her to make get into wellness coaching.

Having survived as a defendant in a medical malpractice case herself, Stacia Dearmin, MD, a primary care physician in Akron, Ohio, was motivated to help others because she felt that it was such an isolating experience. 

Mani Saint-Victor, MD, who lives in the District of Columbia, specifically coaches doctors who are looking for clarity in their lives and careers. “The single most important thing I want doctors to know is that we put in an immense amount of work to get as far as we have and we deserve to be happy,” Saint-Victor says.

Rebecca Elia, MD, CPCC (Certified Professional Co-Active Coach), coaches physicians about ways to reduce burnout. “One needs to create a wellness solution from a wellness-based modality, not a diseased-based modality, such as medicine. Coaching provides a means to do this,” Elia explains.

Building a client base

A few years ago, Whatley started a working for health and nutrition firm Optavia Health as a weight loss coach. She explains that new clients find out about her through referrals from her existing clients, who she describes as happy with their results. “Over 66 percent of Americans are overweight, so there is a huge need for weight loss coaches,” Whatley explains. “People are so grateful and happy to have the help. It is renewing to my spirit that gets jaded by the modern medical milieu,” she says. 
And, like Whatley, Dearmin explains that growing a client base, a slow and steady process, may take years.

Building knowledge and credibility

A wellness coach can work for a company or independently as a self-employed coach. Some doctors break into coaching on their own without working for a company, but the process is different for those who work independently, and includes building a business without a template provided by an employer. 

Elia is a former women’s health physician in San Francisco who left patient care two years ago to become a full time executive coach. Shepresents at conferences and creates programs for medical centers and corporations to decrease the cost of burnout and improve wellbeing, especially for physicians.

She acknowledges that working as a personal coach does not require medical training or coaching certification. But she strongly encourages becoming trained and certifiedand she explains that primary care physicians can take courses and become certified in personal coaching. 

“There are many different coaching programs available, so if you are considering becoming a physician coach, it is essential that you choose carefully,” Elia says.

If a physician is thinking about becoming a coach, Elia advises to begin by defining gaps in personal skills and seeking out the appropriate education to fill in the gaps in experience and expertise.

Financial matters

Elia also explains that from the financial side, starting a coaching business takes clarity and dedication as well as a significant investment of time, energy, money, and attention. 

She hired business coaches and invested in a comprehensive business-building program when she first got started. “Recognize what you don't know and seek appropriate support,” Elia advises. 

Marketing

When it comes to marketing his services, Saint-Victor says that he shares his own viewpoints and approaches through social media, a method that has attracted clients. 

“I create a non-judgmental space where doctors can come and be authentic and the rest takes care of itself,” he explains. Saint-Victor says that his clients have been pleased with their results, sent him their friends, and word spread that way. 

Like Elia, Saint-Victor explains that each coach has a different skill set and has something different to offer to the right clients. “I’m not for everyone and I work with those with whom I resonate when they are ready,” he explains. And this focus, which creates a niche for a wellness coach, is an integral part of marketing. 

Competition

In terms of competition in the coaching world, like the others, Elia is not worried. “No one has had my unique experience, and no one has my specific expertise. Each coach's experience and expertise is unique. There is plenty of room for everyone,” she says.

Finding the right fit

Dearmin sees the role of a coach as engaging with the client around specific issues or concerns. “In my case, that's around understanding and managing the stresses, worries, and potential for positive growth associated with experiencing a patient's unfortunate outcome, becoming a ‘second victim,’ and malpractice litigation,” she explains.

Dearmin says that work with a coach typically focuses on a particular area, whether it is management of the stress of litigation, health and fitness, or something else. She echoes several other coach’s sentiments in saying that it is key that a coach's strengths and interests align with the client's desires, needs, and goals. Dearmin explains that it is for this reason that many coaches insist on a first conversation at no charge during which each person can assess whether the relationship is likely to be a fruitful fit. 

She has coached one-on-one and in a group setting. “Managing a one-on-one session is different from facilitating a group,” she explains. In her work as a coach, she has noticed that some clients prefer complete privacy while some get inspiration from others working on similar goals. Or, a given client may find individual coaching financially prohibitive but gain a great deal from a group session. Group work, she explains, can help a coach round out coaching income, as a number of group members can shoulder supporting the coach's need for remuneration among them.

Boundaries

While non-physicians work as wellness coaches, the industry presents a unique challenge for physicians because the line between providing a medical care and coaching may seem blurred. But doctors who have entered into this field have been able to define the distinction between clients and patients.

Whatley, whose coaching is fairly health focused, maintains well-defined boundaries between being a doctor and being a coach. She keeps her medical work and her coaching work separate. “I do not function as a physician to my clients. I encourage them to seek their own physician’s advice before starting the program,” she says.

Liability and documentation

As high-powered professionals with experience in the importance of litigation risk and documentation requirements, doctors routinely assess these issues when entering into new business ventures. Because it a cash-based business, physicians can provide services without the regulatory documentation requirements of patient care. 

Physician who work as coaches are paid directly by their clients, and sometimes by the client’s employer. The decision about whether or not to buy liability insurance is an individual decision for coaches who are self-employed, and there are no hard as fast rules, with some coaches advising an umbrella policy, and others advising a limited liability policy with a medical malpractice insurance carrier. 

Overall, the sentiment shared by many coaches is that there is a need for wellness coaches and that physicians are well suited for the job. Other coaches are not viewed as competition because a good fit between client and coach is a fundamental part of a successful coaching relationship. 

Working for a company as a wellness coach can be a more secure way of breaking into the industry, but those who have chosen the self employed route were willing to take the leap into a more risky venture. 

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