Health coach supported by interactive technology

dr. H. Rutjes
We are increasingly aware of our lifestyle and are collecting a pile of data via smart watches and smartphone apps to live healthier. Health coaches could play a vital role in achieving a healthier lifestyle, however, coaches are not merely positive about the opportunities that health data provide. 

TU/e researcher Heleen Rutjes turned to the data and concludes that coaches could certainly benefit from the gathered data, as long as they could control the data themselves. Furthermore, she called for a better alignment of health coach, client and technology. 

To achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle health coaching can give a helping hand. Health coaches, like dieticians and personal trainers, are confronted with a vast grow of digital solutions for health coaching. Wearable technology – think of smart watches and smartphone applications – enable continuous and in-situ collection of health data. Not only does this potentially empowers clients to manage their own health, also coaches may benefit from such data. Still, these data are not widely used by coaches in practice.

Daily context
TU/e researcher Heleen Rutjes investigated why coaches tend to ignore health data and subsequently show them how they may efficiently use these data. “Coaches have a much broader understanding of the client, including motivations, daily context and personal values. Why does one unhealthy at certain moments, why is one inactive at certain moments and which factors are affecting the individual circadian rhythm? Just a pile of data doesn’t build the complete picture, the coaches indicate.”

Conversation dynamics
Rutjes’ studies indicate that the effects of data on health coaching go beyond merely adding numerical information. In one experiment she facilitated parents of newborns to customize their own data-practices to capture their baby’s health issues, like feeding, cry and sleep behavior, and share this with their healthcare professional. Rutjes: “Clients’ practices around collecting data and their reflections on the data showed to be highly informative to coaches. We observed that data disrupt roles and changes the dynamics of a conversation. Effective use of health data requires careful alignment of expectations and sufficient room to collaboratively reflect on the data.”

Interactive tool
Rutjes learned that coaches are generally willing to deploy tracking devices to collect data, but they want to keep control over how these data are used. As a next step, she developed an interactive support tool for running coaches to predict challenging yet realistic target finish times for their runners’ next marathon. Multiple study iterations allowed for developing a novel means of interaction in which coaches could meaningfully express themselves. Being enabled to add their complementary knowledge was highly valued by the participating coaches.

Every client is unique, and so is every coach. Rutjes shows that individual coaches respond differently on support systems. Both health coaches as well as health data therefore have their complementary strengths and they can certainly support the client better when they are effectively combined.

Rutjes successfully defended her PhD thesis at the Faculty of IE&IS on October 12th. She was supervised by prof.dr. Wijnand Ijsselstein, Martijn Willemsen from the Human-Technology Interaction group, and dr. Boris de Ruyter from Philips Research. This research was part of the Data Science Flagship, a collaboration between the TU/e and Philips.