Medical students as health coaches: adding value for patients and students

BMC Med Educ. 2020 Jun 3;20(1):182. doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-02096-3.


Background: Underlying the global burden of chronic disease are common and modifiable risk factors such as unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Health coaching is being introduced into healthcare as an effective tool in facilitating behaviour change and addressing lifestyle risk factors in patients. Although some medical schools are training students in health coaching, there is little research on this emerging practice. This qualitative study explores the experience and application of health coaching approaches by third year medical students that have been trained in health coaching.

Methods: Six focus groups were conducted with medical students (n = 39) who had participated in an experiential health coaching training module and practiced their health coaching skills in primary care settings. Interactive facilitated discussions between students aimed to explore experiences of health coaching, how this related to their ongoing practice, and their perceived impacts of engagement with patients. Data was thematically analysed.

Results: Themes emerged around 'mindset', 'skills', 'application of skills', 'perceived value' and 'context'. Training in health coaching prompted a shift towards a non-judgemental, solution-oriented mindset in which students increasingly accepted the ability of each person to define their needs and identify individually appropriate solutions. Mindset change supported skill development in person-centred communication, active listening, and self-refection. Mindset and skills related to changes in how students conducted patient consultations, their practice of self-refection, and their personal relationships. Perceived value of coaching approaches reinforced mindset. Students described facilitators to their coaching practice, and also tensions due to misalignment between their coaching mindset and ongoing practices in medical education and service delivery.

Conclusions: Training medical students in health coaching and supporting them to contribute meaningfully through empowering patients in real-world settings can help develop students' professional identity and a non-judgemental, solution-oriented mindset and skills in self-reflection, person-centred care and facilitating health behaviour change.

Keywords: Communication skills; Health coaching; Patient-centred care.

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum*
  • Education, Medical*
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • Mentoring*
  • Students, Medical*