Health Coaching and Asthma

Could a Health Coach Help My Asthma?

Woman using asthma spacer
Health Coaches for Asthma Control. IAN HOOTON/SPL / Getty Images

In full disclosure related to this topic, I perform health coaching for asthmatics or the parents of asthmatics on a periodic basis. While my professional practice involves a lot of coaching, I am specifically referring to people who I do not serve as their treating physician, but they have asked me to assist or be part of their asthma team in a coaching role or they subscribe to a coaching newsletter I publish.

While I think I am presenting an unbiased view, I thought it important to disclose this fact.

Everyone is familiar with the adage: “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” This is where many primary care physicians would like to get in terms of lifestyle management that can make diseases like asthma, diabetes, or hypertension difficult to manage.

My job as a primary care physician can often be thought of as 2 very different extremes- coaching on one end (usually chronic illness like asthma) requires that I enable patients with the knowledge, skills, tools and self-efficacy or confidence to take appropriate action in a particular area. On the other end of the spectrum, medicine can be thought of as a rescue (acute problems like pneumonia or a blocked artery in the heart) where a doctor identifies an acute condition that requires antibiotic or surgical treatment.

Many doctors today are frustrated by aspects of medicine that inhibit them from performing better in a health coaching role. While I truly believe that nearly all doctors can be good health coaches, the skills have only recently become incorporated into medical education. Additionally, many doctors still feel that health coaching is not really part of their job.

What Is An Asthma Wellness Coach?

In many instances, an asthma educator will fit this role but does not necessarily have to. Consider the following scenario:

Janet is a college sophomore with asthma. She makes good grades and has survived most of the socialization tasks of moving away from her family, done reasonably well in school, has very much enjoyed herself, but has ended up in the emergency room once and the student health clinic 4 times with asthma symptoms.

While Janet understands the difference between her rescue inhaler and controller medication, she is confused about her asthma action plan, has stopped using a spacer, is often exposed to cigarette smoke when she is socializing and does not bring her inhaler if she spends the night at her boyfriend's house.​

Janet is frustrated with her asthma symptoms but does not want her disease to further impact her college life. She is very frustrated when she is told her asthma is under poor control. Her doctor is also frustrated as it seems fairly obvious to her what Janet needs to do to achieve better asthma control. Here is one of the most frustrating parts of medicine for both doctors and patients- the intersection of where one turns the rescue part of medicine into a long-term successful treatment plan.

A health coach can help understand the values of the patient and turn those values into a plan that both doctor and patient can live with.

Who Can Be A Wellness Coach?

It seems health coaches and wellness coaches are popping up all over the internet and in communities around the U.S. The reality is that there is very little regulation. A number of different people including those with personal experience with a disease, professionals such as doctors or therapists, and a growing number of people gaining certification call themselves health coaches.

What Do Health Coaches Do?

Depending on your coach, they will likely focus on a number of different areas such as:

  1. Helping with self-management. You live in the real world and will need help with specific situations where your asthma might get worse. This may require your coach providing you with basic or more advanced asthma information or knowledge. It might also require teaching disease-specific skills like correct inhaler technique. Your health coach may promote specific healthy behaviors like problem-solving skills or identifying a trigger. Your coach may help with addressing the emotional impact of asthma-like fears related to relationships, anxiety or depression.
  2. Bridge a gap between you and your doctor. Not all doctors are good communicators. If your doctor prescribes a new asthma medication but fails to ensure that you can afford it and take it properly, the medication is not going to help you. A health coach can fill in that gap.
  3. Navigation. It is not always easy to get from point A to point B in health care. Maybe you need a specialist, help to identify medication assistance programs, or maybe you need help in getting a medication approved. A health coach can help you get what you or your child needs for asthma.
  4. Support. With any chronic illness like asthma, frustration, and other issues can be emotionally challenging. A health coach can be there to help when you are experiencing emotional lows.
  5. Continuity. Not every patient sees the same doctor every time a visit is needed. A health coach can serve as that continuity that you will be comfortable asking questions to and helping you judge whether your treatment is effective.


Heather D. Bennett, MD, Eric A. Coleman, MD, MPH, Carla Parry, PhD, MSW, Thomas Bodenheimer, MD, MPH, and Ellen H. Chen, MD. Health Coaching for Patients With Chronic Illness.