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Natural Awakenings Fairfield County & Housatonic Valley CT

Integrative Health Coaching and Patient Navigation:: Holistic Healthcare as a Statewide Imperative

Dec 28, 2013 07:39PM ● By Leslie Cahill

Arlene Walsh

There’s a lot of talk these days about health, wellness and preventive healthcare but when it comes to the daily work of putting it into practice, many may lack understanding of where to begin. Fortunately, a new profession and training program is playing a critical role in improving the quality and accessibility of care here in Connecticut through an integrated mind-body-spirit approach. Although it has yet to receive the public recognition it deserves, this growing vocation is quickly transforming the way healthcare is delivered and reducing healthcare costs.


Integrative health coaches and patient navigators (IHCPNs) are trained, culturally sensitive healthcare professionals who provide support and guidance throughout the continuum of an individual’s care. They help people “navigate” through the maze of doctors’ offices, specialists, clinics, hospitals, insurance and payment options and other components of the healthcare system. IHCPNs exhibit the principles of mind-body medicine in action – connecting the dots and facilitating a holistic approach to medical care in a system that is largely fragmented. These professionals are becoming increasingly important as the Affordable Care Act goes into effect, as their role is deeply intertwined with achieving preventive outcomes.


The Graduate Institute of Bethany, CT is offering the first certificate program in Integrative Health Coaching and Patient Navigation in the state. The program kicked off on October 25, 2013 at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford and is currently providing training to 12 students. 


One of the students, Arlene Walsh, is a social and human services professional from Bridgeport. Walsh acknowledges that it is social determinants that make access to quality and affordable healthcare such an enormous challenge for so many people near her neighborhood and in her community. As someone who lives in a large urban center, all she has to do is walk down the street to observe these disparities at play.   


“We need greater partnership between resource providers when it comes to access to medical care, healthy food options at the corner stores, affordable housing and educational opportunities and more effective job training and preparedness programs,” Walsh explains. “There are certain common denominators that impact those in need. If people don’t have the skills, resources or support systems that enable them to move beyond their immediate environment, the cycle of lack continues within our communities.” 


What drew Walsh to study Integrative Health Coaching and Patient Navigation was the opportunity to work collaboratively with individuals and providers in a focused, guided and engaged way to attain better health outcomes. She believes that, through education and awareness, the major barriers to timely, affordable, quality care can be removed, empowering more people to use the healthcare system effectively. “For me, empowerment is synonymous with prevention,” she states. “And that is where change occurs.” 


She acknowledges that many people are confused about the role of health coaches and patient navigators in a system that is already complicated by a growing spectrum of care providers. The IHCPN profession has its own value distinct from physicians, nurses, social workers or care coordinators. “As an integrative health coach and patient navigator, we’re here to foster the patient’s understanding of how the system works, collaborate with providers and facilitate timely access to care,” Walsh explains. “We’re also the trusted go-to person that individuals and families can rely on as they follow through with doctors’ orders while attempting to manage health and insurance systems. The preparedness training of the IHCPN program is enabling me to forge preventive measures that will keep people healthy and out of the emergency room.” 


In a system where physicians are enormously constrained and will continue to see increases in patient volumes, having an IHCPN on the team provides a great deal of support and guidance toward holistically addressing each patient’s needs. This not only eases the burden of patients’ physical care, but offers a level of emotional and psychological support that is critical to their health and wellness.


“Ultimately, everything comes back to health and wellness,” Walsh says. “A healthy person is a functional person.” When someone is deprived of their ability to maintain their basic health, all other aspects of their social and economic situation suffer. This is where IHCPN plays a key role in addressing some of the non-medical factors that are essential to achieving an efficient and high-performing healthcare system.  


When asked why she personally feels such a strong pull to serve in this advocacy role, she reflects on her childhood and the positive example set by her parents. They worked tirelessly to raise ten children and own their own home while still managing to make time to prepare meals and volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Walsh herself embodies this spirit to contribute to her community. She served as a foster parent to a number of children in need and worked with birth parents to teach them life skills, financial literacy and effective self/child advocacy. Walsh also volunteers with the Read a Loud Program at local schools, donates to Bridgeport Rescue Mission and Salvation Army and provides free or low-cost computer training to women who are unemployed or underemployed and lack the skills to obtain better paying jobs. In each of these cases, she acknowledges that the individual can’t do it all alone. 


“It takes a village,” she says. “IHCPNs fill an important link that unites the system. They are no more or less important than every other healthcare professional; rather, they serve as a spoke on a wheel, where each spoke is an integral community provider that contributes to preventive and holistic health and wellness for everyone.” 


To learn more about The Graduate Institute’s Integrative Health Coaching and Patient Navigation certificate program, visit See ad, page 71.

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