Health Coaches at Primary Care Clinics Helped Reduce Heart Risk | Nutrition Fit



Patients who received intensive lifestyle training by coaches in the primary care setting experienced improvement in several indicators of cardiometabolic health in a 2-year trial.

The 803 trial participants comprised a racially diverse, low-income population with obesity. In this study, primary care clinics were randomly assigned to provide weight-loss coaching or usual care. Patients at the intensive training clinics lost significantly more weight than the other patients, as reported in a paper published in September in the New England Journal of Medicine on the PROmoting Successful Weight Loss in Primary CarE in Louisiana (PROPEL) trial. The patients who received weight loss coaching also had significantly more improvement in HDL cholesterol levels, total to HDL cholesterol ratios, and metabolic syndrome severity score, said researchers in the new paper on the PROPEL trial, which was published in Circulation on February 8.

“We believe that one reason for success of the program was the use of a health coach [who] was embedded in the primary care office,” said lead author Peter Katzmarzyk, PhD, associate executive director for population and public health sciences at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, La. “This way, the patients could get their counseling in a familiar environment and did not have to go to a different setting. The coaches developed close relationships with the patients over the 2 years, and this helped develop a sense of responsibility in the patients as the coaches were helping the patients to set goals and kept them accountable.”

In the PROPEL study, 67% of patients were Black and had low health literacy scores that corresponded with less than a ninth-grade education level. The intensive lifestyle intervention program included weekly sessions with the trained health coaches over the first 6 months — 16 face-to-face and 6 over the phone — and then at least monthly for the last 18 months. The coaches had higher education degrees in nutrition, physical activity, or behavioral medicine. Before the program started, the coaches also received training in the management of obesity and related health issues, health literacy, and patient communication and education. The goal of the program was 10% weight loss, using personalized action plans on eating, dieting, and physical activity.

Those in the usual-care clinics continued receiving normal care and received newsletters on health topics, such as the importance of sleep and tips for limiting time spent sitting. The primary care physicians at those clinics also were given a presentation with Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) information on intensive lifestyle interventions for obesity.

Cholesterol Changes in Intervention vs. Control Group

HDL cholesterol improved significantly among the coached patients, compared with the other patients, with a mean difference of 4.1 mg/dL at 1 year and 4.6 mg/dL at 2 years (P less than .01 for both). The total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratio showed a similarly significant difference in decline, with a between-group difference of –0.29 at 1 year and –0.31 at 2 years (P less than .01 for both). Also, the difference in the change in metabolic severity scores were –0.40 at 1 year and –0.21 at 2 years (P less than .01 for both).

Fasting blood glucose had declined after the 1st year by a significantly greater degree in the clinics with coaching, compared with the others, but not after the second year, researchers found.

There were no significant differences seen in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, non-HDL cholesterol, or blood pressure. Katzmarzyk said the likely reason for no change in blood pressure was that it was already relatively well-controlled at baseline for all the patients.

Funding Barriers to Obesity Treatment

The CMS currently cover intensive training for obesity if delivered directly by a primary care physician, according to the authors of the new paper. Katzmarzyk said he hopes that will change.

“We are hoping that the evidence provided in this study may change the way that CMS funds obesity treatment in the future by allowing an expansion of the care team,” he said.

John Flack, MD, chair of internal medicine at Southern Illinois University, Springfield, said that the main achievement of the study was that it showed that intensive weight-loss training in the primary-care setting could be accomplished in a racially diverse population with low health literacy.

“You can’t just automatically assume just because you’ve seen it in some other populations that you can replicate this in every population, so they’ve done a really good job,” he said.

That programs are eligible for reimbursement only if they’re run by primary-care physicians is an ongoing problem, he said.

“You don’t necessarily need to be a physician to do this,” Flack said.

For best results, payment for coaching should not be tied to office visits, Flack noted.

“If they’re de-tethered from the office visits and you’re paid for quality…you’re going to build out your infrastructure differently to care for people,” he said.

Andrew Freeman, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, Denver, and cochair of the American College of Cardiology’s nutrition and lifestyle work group, said the findings dovetail with his experience.

“I’m a huge believer that when people need to make lifestyle changes, having someone hold their hand and guide them through the effort is incredibly rewarding and incredibly powerful,” said Freeman, who also oversees the intensive cardiac rehab program at National Jewish Health in Denver.

A program like this needs proper funding in order to work, Dr, Freeman noted. He added that, even with coaches being paid well, “if you are able to prevent just one readmission for, say, heart failure a month…you could be saving millions of dollars over just a couple of years.”

Katzmarzyk, Flack, and Freeman reported no relevant disclosures. Louisiana State University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and Montclair State University have interest in the intellectual property surrounding a weight graph used in the study. The other researchers reported grants and/or fees from Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Gilead, Takeda, Novo Nordisk, and other companies.

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