Professionals learn to connect with, coach patients

By LaKisha Ladson 

After 30 years as a nurse, Winnie Wong is learning a whole new way of communicating with her patients.

“I’m learning to listen now; we were taught to teach the patient,” said Ms. Wong, a senior registered nurse in internal medicine. “Now I start by asking them what they know, and I guide the patient from there.”

At a recent session of the health coaching class, Dr. Monty Evans (left) listens to a discussion among members of the group. In the background are (from left) nurse Winnie Wong, social worker Martha Jarmon and Dr. Ted Asay, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry.

Ms. Wong is one of about a dozen licensed health professionals enrolled in a pilot clinical health coaching class. The students, mostly nurses and social workers, voluntarily spend one lunch hour a week learning how to make clinical practice better for patients at UT Southwestern University Hospitals & Clinics.

“I’m getting a lot more thank yous from patients, and they’re discussing other aspects of their health with me that are not related to their appointment,” Ms. Wong said.

The yearlong class meets once a week and is taught by Dr. H.M. “Monty” Evans, assistant professor of psychiatry. He said health coaching is based on the research of late psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers and others who found that when health care workers discern and build on a patient’s motivation to change, they achieve more lasting results.

Dr. Evans, director of clinical training for the doctoral program and internship in clinical psychology, teaches his students to recognize coachable moments — opportunities to discuss change with their patients and help them find ways to decrease resistance and obstacles to success.

“Our approach is that of a guide,” Dr. Evans said. “So there is heavy training in listening and reflective listening. Health care workers build relationships with the patients and then collaborate with them to decide what their health goals are to try and deal with their physical illness.”

Professionals implementing the technique say that it works.

Martha Jarmon, a licensed social worker in the Doris and Harry W. Bass Jr. Clinical Center for Heart, Lung and Vascular Disease, said the techniques can be used to help patients move toward positive changes in their approach to medication management, diet and exercise.

“This approach allows us to find out what the patient thinks his or her options are, so together we can determine the best way to make a change,” she said. “This kind of program seems to give autonomy and control back to the patient.”

Ms. Jarmon, an adjunct social work professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce, said the response from patients and families has been so positive that she began teaching the techniques to her students in Commerce. She also uses the approach to help veterans who recently have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Evans said that interest in the program has spread around campus and that some students use the techniques in their private lives.

“The students in this program seem to be really proud of themselves and feel like they have something more to offer,” he said. “And patients are more successful at sticking to their health goals.”