As of 2022, there were approximately 23,000 health coaches in the United States. This figure will increase rapidly, as health coaching is poised for tremendous growth. There’s never been a better time to train as a health coach and enter this rewarding profession.
Choosing where to train can be confusing, as the number of programs keeps proliferating. As of January 2023, 114 schools earned approval from the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC). Many other programs offer certification but are not NBHWC-approved. Although most of these schools share some common features, such as remote learning, their philosophies, type of training, and the overall quality of the educational experience vary widely.
I identified 10 key questions to consider before enrolling in a health coach training program.
1. Is the program approved by NBHWC?
To be amongst the top echelon of health coaches, consider becoming nationally board-certified, a credential granted by NBHWC after having met their criteria, including passing an exam developed by NBHWC in partnership with the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME), a well-respected organization founded in 1915 to provide an assessment of physicians and other healthcare professionals.
With NBC-HWC after your name, you’ll be sought after by employers and have an easier time attracting clients if you decide to establish your own coaching business. When health coaching becomes eligible for reimbursement through the payor system (anticipated in the next few years, if not sooner), earning board certification will most likely be a requirement for using the CPT codes designated for health coaching that will be required when submitting insurance claims.
Health coaching programs choose to apply for approval by NBHWC so that their graduates are eligible to sit for the exam and become nationally board-certified. The application process is rigorous and strict standards must be in place or the school will not be approved. Some programs did not originally meet NBHWC’s criteria and would have been rejected unless they created additional learning experiences. When vetting schools, ask whether or not they were required to add an additional course in order to obtain NBHWC-approval.
Schools approved by NBHWC will proudly claim this status on their websites by displaying the NBHWC badge. If they do not call this out in their marketing, assume that they are not approved by NBHWC. Instead, some schools list other organizations that grant accreditation.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF), founded prior to the existence of NBHWC, is a reputable certifying body that is well-known for credentialing executive and life coaches, in addition to health coaches. But unlike NBHWC, ICF does not specialize in health and wellness coaching.
Some schools may claim that they’re accredited by additional organizations and that these associations certify their graduates. Doing some research could reveal that these so-called professional credentialing bodies were created by the very school involved. Some have no criteria for certification, such as passing a rigorous exam. Instead, they merely require that you send money to receive a “certificate.”
Earn your board certification from NBHWC and you’ll be recognized as a coach who met the criteria from the gold standard in the health coaching industry.
Additionally, inquire about whether there’s an opportunity to receive continuing education credit for your studies. Many schools offer programs that are approved by various professional associations, such as …..
2. If the program is approved by NBHWC, how many graduates become board-certified, and what is their exam passing rate?
When you graduate from an NBHWC-approved school, you’re eligible to sit for the NBHWC board exam, administered by NBME. When vetting the many board-approved health coaching schools, keep in mind that merely claiming board approval is insufficient. Did they just sneak by meeting the minimal requirements for live training that happens in real-time, for example? Such experiences, which can be remote, are referred to as synchronous learning.
Ask two important questions:
- What percentage of their graduates choose to take the exam that leads to board certification?
- What is the school’s aggregate passing rate and how does theirs compare to the passing rate of other programs?
These numbers say a lot about the quality of education and the attention to areas such as ethical standards, the coaching structure and process, and health and wellness guidelines.
3. Is the curriculum comprehensive, research-based, and relevant to health coaching?
Some schools advocate for a specific orientation or wellness philosophy. Consequently, their graduates may have difficulty working with clients who are not suited for, or do not wish to adhere to these beliefs. They may also discover that job opportunities are more limited. On the other end of the spectrum, certain programs pride themselves on teaching a multitude of dietary theories and other approaches, even though some are not evidence-based.
Do you want a curriculum more suited for medical schools, or do you want content that will lead to becoming a top health coach? Some programs take a deep dive into cellular biology, biochemistry, and similar areas of study, but fail to provide sufficient training in the structure and process of coaching or in positive psychology. As a result, their graduates are ill-prepared for the real world of working with clients.
A health coaching curriculum needs to be well-rounded and the subject matter must be tied to a key question: how can I use this information to inspire clients to make the changes that will lead to better health?
Many programs teach motivational interviewing, touch on some behavior change theories, and believe they’ve adequately covered the coaching part of their course. No so, as that’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the study of communication, human behavior, and how/why people change.
Another question to ask is whether or not the curriculum includes content on the ins and outs of launching a coaching business and getting hired by medical practices and other organizations. But beware of any school advertising their promise that you’ll be earning a 6-figure income after graduation. Realistically, a multitude of factors determines earning potential, including being an alumni of a top-notch health coaching program.
4. Who is on the faculty and what are their qualifications?
Given the specific knowledge areas to be mastered when training to become a health coach, consider the diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise of the faculty members. Some schools are based on a single philosophy and the content is primarily taught by one individual, while other programs address just one component of health and wellness, such as nutrition, so the teachers are all nutrition professionals rather than experienced coaches. Will learning from those who have little to no background or direct experience in coaching or behavior change provide you with an education that’s well-rounded enough to fully prepare you to become an outstanding health coach?
5. Does the program include ample opportunities for live training sessions and hands-on experience?
Consider experiential learning where “the rubber meets the road.” Most programs claim that they provide this type of experience, but what exactly does it look like? If they offer live or virtual synchronous learning, how many students are in the group? Being in an experiential learning group with 75 other students will not result in the same profound benefits derived from active participation in a small cohort group with only 8-15 others. Additionally, how often do the sessions take place? Does the group facilitator really know each individual and do they provide sufficient feedback?
6. Does the school offer support, mentoring, internship opportunities, and continuing education after you graduate?
Check if the program offers a job board where those seeking to hire coaches can recruit candidates. Beyond posting employment opportunities, does the school work directly with potential employers? Do they offer pathways to internships and additional training opportunities? What about mentoring and support groups to help graduates launch their businesses or land a job? How actively engaged will their alumni team (if they have one) be in connecting you with potential employers, such as medical clinics, digital health companies, and other organizations?
Those schools with a mission to serve their graduates with as much dedication and investment as they direct toward recruiting new students are truly committed to serving their community at the highest level.
Ask if the school has an alumni department dedicated to supporting graduates.
7. Is the school “crossing the line” and either actively or inadvertently conveying the message that health coaches can engage in practices that may put them at risk for potential legal complaints?
Are graduates of the program calling themselves practitioners and engaging in practices that are outside of their scope of practice, such as ordering and interpreting lab testing or providing nutrition advice or recommendations? If the school teaches a collaborative care team model, graduates are more likely to get hired by medical practices and receive referrals from practitioners. I know from first-hand experience that nothing irks a healthcare provider more than seeing health coaches with no medical training independently ordering and interpreting labs or making dietary recommendations.
“I believe it is more important now than ever for any type of certified practitioner or health coach to be advising or coaching patients ethically within their scope of practice and not interpreting labs or practicing medicine without the proper licensure. Unfortunately, I have seen misinformation detrimental to patient outcomes when someone offers medical advice outside the scope of their training and licensure. We all lose credibility when someone disregards the basic tenants of ethics and code of conduct.”Jill Carnahan, MD, ABIHM, ABoIM, IFMCP
Keep in mind that some health coaches may have prior training and hold a license in a healthcare field that allows them to work directly with labs, procedures, or nutrition. In these instances, they would be acting within the scope of practice of their previous profession.
8. Are you being told that you can become a certified health coach in a few months?
The truth is, there’s no “fast track” when it comes to learning to become a competent coach who attracts clients and gets results. It’s not simply about exposure to theories, such as self-determination theory or appreciative inquiry; rather, it’s about truly knowing and experiencing client-centered communication. The learning journey can’t be sped up, as you need time to fully appreciate and experience all aspects of the process of deeply engaging with another human being.
Cutting corners and choosing a short training program could result in not being able to effectively coach, and not retaining clients. I’ve seen too many people graduate from “fast-track” programs and then enroll in schools that provide a longer, more robust training experience because they did not feel adequately prepared, and therefore were not able to successfully launch their coaching careers.
9. What is the student experience like?
It’s important that the school has a student services team committed to making your journey as a student as rewarding and stress-free as possible. This includes tech support and prompt responses to your questions.
Will you have direct access to the school’s founders and top leaders? You can tell a great deal about the quality of a program by learning about the founders. Are they mission-driven and 100% committed to creating a stellar experience for everyone associated with the school: students, graduates, faculty, team members, and partner organizations? What is their reputation in the community at large?
10. Has the school earned a stellar reputation?
Is it well-regarded in the industry? Are top institutions exclusively hiring their graduates? Are doctors and wellness professionals sending team members to be trained and seeking out the school’s graduates for their patients? Is the school partnering with other training programs and organizations that will offer additional opportunities for graduates?
Top-rated universities and medical institutions are committed to advancing knowledge by engaging in research activities. The same standard holds true for health coaching programs. Is the school supporting research initiatives in order to advance the health coaching profession?
Most importantly, does the program feel right for you?
At the end of the day, YOU know this better than anyone. You want a program that aligns with your values, one that resonates with your passions and goals. When you picture the future you want, choose the program that will help you get there. Trust your intuition. Go with the path that’s calling you.
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