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Health Coaches Help Patients Battle Chronic Illness

Charlotte Albright
Jennifer McFarlin has been working with a health coach from Dartmouth Hitchock Medical Center to lower her weight as she manages her diabetes.

More than 25 million Americans suffer from diabetes, and one in every 10 health care dollars is spent to treat it. But what if those patients were coached to live healthier lives?

One hospital experimenting with this new strategy is Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

That’s where 39-year-old Jennifer McFarlin spends a lot of time. Like approximately 500 other patients getting treated at Dartmouth Hitchcock, she has diabetes.

A head housekeeper at a motel, she gets some exercise each day, but still, her weight began creeping up. For diabetics, that can be a dangerous trend.

Turns out, she was occasionally binging on junk food and avoiding a few responsibilities, like measuring her blood sugar level every day.

“I’m not the best one for checking my sugars cause I don’t want to know, kind of like with my diet,” she admits. “That’s why my doctor knew that I was actually ready to have a coach and to try to see if I would try to come on board.”

She did come on board, linking up with a health mentor who helped her lose weight and drop unhealthy habits. They meet every Wednesday—her one day off from work at the motel.

"I truly believe it has made a huge difference in my life, having my health coach. She's been wonderful." - Jennifer McFarlin

“I truly believe it has made a huge difference in my life, having my health coach—she’s been wonderful.”

Her coach, Inger Imset, says McFarlin has been an ideal team player.

“Fortunately she was very committed to the process,” Imset says.

Imset specializes in patient education at Dartmouth’s Geisel Medical School. She says she enjoys spending time with McFarlin, teaching her how to get healthier.

“And we take walks together because her goal was around weight loss and because she is physically able we talk and walk at the same time,” Imset explains.

They talk about how to choose foods that will not drive up her blood sugar or add calories.

McFarlin’s doctor, Kathleen Morrow, says her patient lost 10 pounds after only three weeks of coaching, and her blood sugar level has dropped by 20 percent. And Morrow sees a less tangible benefit from the coaching sessions.

“Jenn’s whole attitude towards herself, her sense of mastery over her life, to her sense of what’s possible for her to achieve has changed as a result,” Morrow says.

Other patients in the program don’t have time for personal coaching. They prefer to get daily texts to remind them to take a walk, or a pill.  Still others just need transportation to their doctor’s appointments.

Seventy five Dartmouth patients are part of a national study by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation into whether coaching  improves outcomes, and cuts down on health care costs.

But the doctors and coaches say their primary goal is not just to save money, but to save lives.

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