Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for IDEA, NFPT, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com.
Best Practices in Virtual Health Coaching
These are unprecedented times. These are unique times. These are challenging times. There’s no crystal ball to aid us in predicting when or if the current challenges will subside. For now, health and exercise professionals must shift their focus and forge a new path to continue to inspire greatness in their clients. We are being called to elevate our current practices, reimagine the delivery of our services, and rise above the challenges the COVID-19 global pandemic is presenting. In essence, health and exercise professionals must now move forward in a “new normal.”
Like many health and exercise professionals, for you this new normal may include integrating virtual offerings into your existing services or migrating your practice to an entirely virtual platform. If you’re finding these processes challenging, you’re not alone. Read on to learn the necessary steps to successfully launch and/or transform your business to include virtual services.
Industry Growth and Sustainability
Health coaching continues to experience tremendous growth in both face-to-face and virtual formats. Margaret Moore, CEO of Wellcoaches and cofounder and chair for the Institute of Coaching, notes, “There is tremendous growth in the digital coaching/digital therapeutics space—lots of new companies selling into the employer space. During the pandemic, you see the dramatic shift to telehealth in healthcare, which shall continue during the next year. Everyone is more adapted to virtual support by professionals.”
Arguably the most significant development in the field is the establishment of temporary category III CPT codes for health and well-being coaching services to be used for data collection and substantiation, which launched on January 1, 2020, says Moore. These codes recognize and emphasize that health coaching sessions can be performed face-to-face in outpatient clinical or inpatient settings by using real-time synchronous virtual communication. This development and the inclusion of these codes speaks directly to the demand and sustainability of health coaching in a virtual space.
Chris Gagliardi, Scientific Education Content Manager for the American Council on Exercise, agrees. “Over the past few years, I have seen a growth in virtual coaching, with both newly certified professionals and veteran professionals having an interest in using virtual platforms and technology to facilitate the coaching process. More people are inquiring about how virtual coaching works and sharing information about how they are using virtual coaching to broaden their reach to those they serve.”
With increased recognition and integration of certified health coaches into the allied healthcare continuum, experts agree that health coaching is a beneficial practice. Expanded virtual coaching options extend the reach of health coaches to deliver services to clients in a more flexible and convenient format.
Upsides and Downsides
As with any format or delivery of content, there are pros and cons deserving of discussion. Experts offer valuable insight into what existing and upcoming health coaching professionals should consider during the process of developing or migrating current services and options for clients.
Upsides of Virtual Health Coaching
Virtual health coaching has the potential to:
- Offer greater flexibility and convenience for the coach and the client
- Allow health coaches to expand their geographical reach and, therefore, help more individuals—specifically those in rural areas where access to a certified health coach is either limited or nonexistent
- Reduce travel time for both the coach and the client
- Maintain a personal connection between the coach and client during times of social distancing
- Allow coaches to work with clients across various time zones
Potential Downsides of Virtual Health Coaching
In contrast, virtual coaching can also be limiting and present specific challenges. Here are the primary “downsides” to an at-a-distance health-coaching model.
- Certain technological “glitches” or “hiccups” may complicate aspects of the coaching process. If the internet connection isn’t reliable, for example, this could result in frustrations for both coach and client.
- Virtual health coaching requires an even more committed approach to building rapport as sessions don’t allow for a physical high five, fist bump, hug, etc.
- Some may find the remote experience more distracting than an in-person session.
- Some clients may feel uncomfortable sharing personal health information in a virtual space.
- Virtual coaching requires a secure platform to maintain confidentiality and reduce the potential for hacking.
Must-dos to Launch and Maintain a Thriving Virtual Health Coaching Practice
Launching any business, whether in an in-person, virtual or a hybrid model, requires intense focus, intentional thought and strategic planning. For a virtual or remote health coaching business, you are challenged to think in a different dimension because of the unique use of technology and the absence of a physical coaching space/location where you and your client meet together. Consider the following your “great 8 punch list” of must-dos to get your business off the ground and into the cloud.
- Master the technology before you recruit clients. The technological tools selected to deliver your coaching services will set the tone for your clients. Gagliardi encourages professionals to master their tech tools and platforms from “your point of view and from the view of the clients you will be serving.” The user experience is the most important component. Dennis Sanchez, ACE Health Coach Education and Training Lead, also urges health coaches to invest in the highest possible internet bandwidth to avoid poor streaming quality.
- Prioritize professionalism. This includes limiting distractions (silencing your phone and placing email and other notifications on “do not disturb” during the session). Moore emphasizes the need to create “an attractive, well-lit space,” while Gagliardi shares that although you may be providing coaching sessions from the comfort of your home, “give your clients the energy, preparation and focus they deserve.” Additionally, Sanchez urges professionals to “be professionally dressed and remove clutter from your coaching space.” In other words, the space you create virtually affects the look, feel and effectiveness of all coaching sessions.
- Get creative. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches to enhance the coaching experience. Moore suggests professionals “shake it up and try out new tools and techniques in coaching sessions to inspire and create more energy and engagement.”
- Seek legal guidance and build a professional network. These two pieces of the business puzzle are paramount. Ensure that your liability insurance covers virtual sessions and that the overall structure of the business is sound and secure. Continue to build your professional network; although you are largely limited to virtual environments, you are nonetheless able to connect your clients to professionals across the globe.
- Upgrade your concierge role. This means “locating articles and resources to share which are well-tailored to each client,” explains Moore. “Prepare short tutorials on key topics of resilience, emotional well-being, wisdom, etc.”
- Continue to grow and engage with the field. A health coach is only effective when their knowledge base is sound, scientific and based on the latest research, tools and strategies. In a virtual world, there’s little excuse to neglect continuing education and development. Gagliardi points to the astounding growth in the number of continuing education courses and trainings offered that are specific to virtual coaching practices and business models. In fact, IDEA held their first Virtual IDEA World in August of 2020. This is likely the first of many large-scale educational opportunities that are becoming available virtually to health and fitness professionals.
- Have a plan B. How many times have you been in a session and something goes wrong or you feel stuck? While having a plan is important, it can’t guarantee that you or your client won’t encounter the occasional landmine. Gagliardi reminds us of the importance of creating a contingency plan. “Consider what to do if the internet is not working, if the client is distracted or multitasking, or even the worst-case scenario of how to handle an emergency during a virtual session,” he recommends.
- Be a role model during times of challenge and change. We are living in a world that is, in many ways, hard to recognize. It’s shifted and morphed into what seems like an alternate reality. Change is hard—for everyone, including you and your clients. Your clients want your leadership and they may look to you for a sense of calm during stressful times. Likewise, you will have a set of personal needs to satisfy. Moore implores professionals to “be a role model for navigating pandemic time with an optimal mindset and extra investment in your own well-being, including downtime to avoid burnout.” Self-care is a must. Prioritizing its practice is personally and professionally necessary.
When practicing in any field, we aim to circumvent the biggest potential blunders. Health coaching isn’t easy as a general practice, but doing it in the virtual realm requires us to be more mindful than ever before. Think about the following list as the foundations of a virtual coaching philosophy.
- Check your lighting and sound ahead of time.
- Check your surroundings in advance and limit or remove potential distractions (background noise, technological issues, tendency to multi-task, etc.)
- Be mindful of HIPAA practices. Secure client data both physically and digitally.
- Virtual coaching can be more exhausting and time-intensive than face-to-face sessions. Hours sitting in front of a computer can be tiring, which makes establishing and maintaining a self-care routine especially important.
- Be mindful of social isolation. Join support groups with other health coaches to get ideas and inspiration.
- Avoid giving advice or selling supplements. These types of products are regulated differently than conventional food and drug products and you are at a greater risk of being considered liable for adverse reactions because these activities are outside of the defined scope of practice for health coaches.
Finally, a word of caution. “The number one pothole that derails health coaches that are purposely transitioning to or launching a virtual/online practice is that they become overconcerned with the technology platform,” says Lee Jordan, an ACE Certified Health Coach, educator and national presenter. “This leads to a mistaken ‘build it and they will come’ approach.” In other words, remember to be thoughtful and intentional in the building of, and/or migration to, a virtual practice before signing contracts or incurring recurring debt unnecessarily.
Now, it’s time to start building (or migrating to) virtual services. Whether you are a novice or seasoned health coach, there are simple and practical steps you can take to get the process started.
Technology is the cornerstone of a virtual practice. A quality platform along with your credentials legitimizes your services. Start by researching the available distance-learning platforms and apps. Create a pro-con list of the various features available and work to identify any gaps or needs you and your clients have.
Next, identify your niche market. Decide who it is you are called to serve and tailor your platform, services, classes and coaching packages to that specific demographic. This will require some demographic research. The good news is, with a virtual platform, you are no longer limited by the population of individuals who are physically near you.
Sanchez reminds professionals to “collaborate with other health coaches and exercise professionals who recognize and understand the challenges of the virtual environment. Build a community of like-minded professionals so that you have others who can lend an ear or offer coaching to you when faced with challenges.”
Health coaching is a rewarding practice and profession. As a certified health and exercise professional, you have the opportunity to facilitate behavior change, help your clients tap into their self-expertise, and inspire greatness in others. Health coaching is also a critical piece of the healthcare industry and it is becoming more respected, robust and research driven. It isn’t so much about the platform as it is the intentionality of the process.
“The best practices in 'virtual' health coaching are exactly the same as in 'non-virtual' health coaching,” asserts Jordan. “Health coaching is, essentially, an intentional conversation, and is, therefore, equally effective regardless of the delivery method. As health coaching is fundamentally a client-centered endeavor, the answer to which delivery method is best—voice, videoconference or in-person—should be determined by the client.”
Ultimately, your work as a health coach is about the client. In choosing which delivery method is best, keep your decision-making centered on the client and the needs of your niche market at the forefront of your attention. In doing so, the business you create and nurture will grow and prosper, regardless of what the future might have in store.