Addressing substance use disorder in primary care: The role, integration, and impact of recovery coaches

Subst Abus. 2018;39(3):307-314. doi: 10.1080/08897077.2017.1389802. Epub 2017 Nov 13.


Background: Only 10% of people with substance use disorder (SUD) receive treatment, partially due to inadequate access to specialty SUD care and limited management within primary care. "Recovery coaches" (RCs), peers sharing the lived experience of addiction and recovery, are increasingly being integrated into primary care to help reach and treat people experiencing SUD, yet little is known about how their role should be defined or about their clinical integration and impact.

Methods: Semistructured interviews with RCs (n = 5) and their patients (n = 16) were used to explore patient and RC perspectives on the RC role. Maximum variation sampling was employed to select patients who displayed diversity across gender, RC, housing status, and number of contacts with an RC. Patients were sampled until no new concepts emerged from additional interviews, and a semistructured interview guide was used for data collection. To analyze interview transcripts, the constant comparative method was used to develop and assign inductively developed codes. Two coders separately coded all transcripts and reconciled code assignments.

Results: Four core RC activities were identified: system navigation, supporting behavior change, harm reduction, and relationship building. Across these activities, benefits of the RC role emerged, including accessibility, shared experiences, motivation of behavior change, and links to social services. Challenges of the RC model were also evident: patient discomfort with asking for help, lack of clarity in RC role, and tension within the care team.

Conclusions: These findings shed light on RCs in primary care. Many patients and coaches perceived that RCs play a valuable role within primary care, providing both tangible system navigation and intangible, social support that promote recovery and might not otherwise be available. Enhanced communication between RCs and health center leadership in defining the RC role may help resolve ambiguity and related tensions between RCs and care team members.

Keywords: Patient acceptance of health care; patient care team; qualitative research; substance-related disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mentoring*
  • Patients / psychology
  • Peer Group
  • Primary Health Care / methods*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Substance-Related Disorders / nursing*