Health Coaching for Positive Change

Illustration by Leigh Wells

The first cohort of Health Coaching certificate program students at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing (VUSN) recently completed their 28-week course of study, preparing them to help patients set realistic health goals and provide support in reaching those goals.

“It’s hard to motivate people to change by telling them they have elevated lipids, for example. But if we can tie their health-related changes to the things that are important to them— living longer, having energy to play with their grandchildren, and being able to enjoy a family vacation—patients become more engaged,” said Blaire Morriss, ANP-BC, RN, who co-directs the program with Linda Manning, PhD.

This health coaching program is a structured, evidence-based approach where providers and patients collaborate to make positive changes. Mindfulness, Positive Psychology and Motivational Interviewing are woven throughout the curriculum. The program focuses on the foundation of Health Coaching which is the patient-coach relationship, patient-centered communication, and the health coaching process. The curriculum also includes five specific health areas, reflecting some of the most crucial health issues in society: nutrition and diet, diabetes, smoking cessation, chronic pain, and movement and exercise.

“Health coaching is really one of those things that you can’t do unless you have experienced it. Students can’t learn these skills only through didactic teaching. They learn how to work with people, and our program is designed to learn from the inside out,” said Manning.

The courses are taught via modified distance learning, online courses and two in-person sessions with the entire class. A key part of the teaching method revolves around triads— three-person groups of students who coach one another throughout the program. Specifically, one student plays the part of the health coach while another is the client or patient and the third is the observer.

A foundational part of the program is a personal change project, so students can see and experience the individual steps such as intake, evaluating various health domains, and creating a vision for their well-being.

“This project spans the entire program and helps the students both practice and receive. This isn’t just a ‘head’ experience, this is a felt experience,” Morriss said.

“Health coaching is about unleashing the person’s potential without shaming them into change. It’s about harnessing the provider-patient relationship right in the beginning,” said Manning.

The first cohort was comprised of registered dietitians, nurses, nurse practitioners, social workers and a clinical psychologist, but the program is open to any health provider.

“I like the model of coaching because it has a defined beginning, middle and end,” said Pam Marks-Shulman, RD, who works with patients dealing with obesity in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) Department of Surgery. “It’s easy for all of us to wallow around in the things we want to fix about ourselves, and that can really hold us back. Health coaching turns it around so the patient is looking forward, even though it’s tiny steps forward.”

The Health Coaching certificate program is sponsored by The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt, VUMC Nursing Service and VUSN.

The next session starts in September.

For more information visit