Simply put, habits are hard to break and bad habits like smoking, drinking, sedentary lifestyle and overeating are making our population sick.
Doctors are trained to diagnose and treat, but they aren’t trained to help people change their behavior, nor should they be since most physicians, particularly general practitioners, are already severely overloaded. Nurses may provide support and information but their assistance is limited to office visits or hospitalizations. Until recently, there has been an unmet need in the healthcare system for a provider who works with patients in the days and weeks between appointments or post inpatient treatment. But now there is a new breed of healthcare para-professionals, called among other things recovery support specialists who are filling that gap.
Recovery support specialists are trained to help people change their lifestyles using a tailored approach and the tools of compassion, motivation and self-efficacy building. One does not have to be trained in medicine to be a recovery support specialist. Timothy Harrington, Chief Empowerment Officer of Sustainable Recovery, stresses that it takes a large skill set to be effective, and for people transitioning from other medical disciplines it requires a deprogramming from the role of expert advisor to that of health facilitator. While physicians serve as advisors, defining agendas, and treating disease, recovery support specialists serve as partners, eliciting patient’s agendas and co-discovering solutions. One is helpful for treating illness, the other for changing habits.
There are numerous examples in the literature of recovery support specialists achieving good outcomes in programs for smoking cessation, weight loss and diabetes management. Corporate America is also catching on, with some of the nations biggest employers such as Johnson & Johnson hiring health coaches for their workforce to cut down on medical expenses and lost productivity.
Despite these gains, the practice hasn’t quite hit the mainstream and in most cases it is not covered by health insurance. One reason for this is that field is still highly fragmented in terms of certification and education. Unlike seeing a board certified physician, when you work with a recovery support specialist you don’t always know what you are going to get. Educational programs differ in intensity, some may be the equivalent of a master’s degree and others just a scant two-week certification course.
In order to standardize the emerging field of recovery support specialists, Timothy Harrington, is hopeful that soon their will be, at a national level, uniform educational standards, core competencies and more research demonstrating cost savings.
“There is a huge lack of understanding from within most conventional healthcare clinicians as to what a recovery support specialists is and how it is different from case management, disease management, nurse education and health navigators. Part of the need is for us to come up with a cohesive definition and clarification of credentials to be able to hold our own in this ground where there is a lot of confusion,” commented Timothy Harrington regarding the immersion of recovery support specialists into mainstream medicine.
When asked if health coaching was an outsider movement, Timothy Harrington asserted that in the future recovery support specialists will have a place in the conventional primary care system, especially if there is an overhaul of the pay per service reimbursement model.
Who will fix healthcare? The answer to this is still unclear, but recovery support specialists are certainly priming themselves to be an important part of the solution.