At Orange Coast College, 2020 brought us many firsts, including the launch of the Integrative Health Coach program. OCC is the first community college in California to offer a health coaching program and the first in the country to offer a fully integrative health coaching program.
Integrative medicine is a growing field that includes modalities such as naturopathic medicine, stress management and mindfulness, pain management, yoga therapy, nutrition, healthy cooking and sleep.
“Health coaches are part of a team of people that help bridge the gap between what the doctor might have told the patient and where to begin,” said Sharyn Konick, director of OCC’s Integrative Health Coach program. “They also ask questions that the doctor might have missed.”
The program kicked off in the fall of 2020 and the first cohort of students will be heading into their clinical internships this summer. Among this group is Jennifer Gattenby, who decided to return to school after learning about the program.
Gattenby was working as a yoga instructor and mortgage lender when COVID-19 hit, and she realized that she wanted to be able to reach more people and make a greater impact.
“I was looking for programs in general, where I could make a difference. And I live right by OCC. So, I just said, ‘let me check it out.’ I had known about other integrative health programs that are private and very expensive,” Gattenby said.
Gattenby’s mother is a registered nurse and she had considered different degree paths in health before ultimately settling on sociology. Once she read the description of coursework for the Integrative Health Coach program and saw that one of them was Theory of Yoga, she just knew it would be a fit. Being a go-getter, she decided to get a jumpstart on some of the requirements during the winter intersession and was able to take two of the required courses – Public Health and Nutrition – before the first semester of the two-semester program had officially even started.
Gattenby will be doing her eight-week clinical internship at Southern California University of Health Sciences, which offers bachelors as well as advanced degrees in integrative medicine. It is home to a community clinic as well as the Clinical & Translational Genome Research Institute, a research center working on innovative treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and heart disease among others, using advanced genomic technologies.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 90% of the nation’s 3.8 trillion in healthcare expenditures are for people with chronic disease and mental health conditions.
In response to this current epidemic several philanthropic programs and individuals throughout Orange County decided to fund a project that took place from 2016-2019 called Live Healthy OC, which ultimately led to the creation of Integrative Health Coach program at OCC.
The intent of the program was to see whether offering integrative health services- things like acupuncture, yoga therapy and Ayurvedic medicine to name a few, would improve patient outcomes at federally qualified health centers.
“That was a long project where we started seeing the results of how patients were getting better, and how much better the providers felt, because they had felt like they weren’t getting anywhere with patients, and by using integrative medicine alongside traditional medicine, and having it accessible, patients were really healing,” she said.
Due to the success of the Live Healthy OC project, OCC was approached by the Samueli Foundation in 2019 about creating an Integrative Health Coach program. The goal was to create a program that would get people out into their own communities to help patients access integrative modalities and navigate the healthcare system, but one that wouldn’t take 10 years of medical schooling to complete. The Samueli Foundation provided the initial grant to create the program and continues to be a huge supporter.
Konick, who has a background in social work and program development, was picked to be program director after finishing up the Live Healthy OC project and then joining the advisory board at OCC to begin work on this project.
“I’ve been lucky, even early in my career, like when I was working on the social services side of things and mental health, and we had ideas about things, we had guesstimates, if you will,” Konick said. ”Luckily, somebody invested in that. We built things. And we were right, most of the time, because most of the programs I’ve worked on have been very successful because we’re responding to a community need, and listening to what our clients, patients, investors – all the stakeholders – are asking for. So this program is no different.”
The curriculum took a year and half to write and get approved through the chancellor’s office.
Ronnie Perez is coming up on the end of his first semester in the program and has discovered that on the road to helping others change their lives, he has already begun to change his own. Through learning about nutrition and making lifestyle changes, Perez, who had high blood pressure, has lost 56 pounds so far this year and his blood pressure continues to go down, making him less dependent on medication.
Perez had been working as an elementary school teacher and loved his job.
“I found a lot of joy in teaching,” he said. “But when I came home, you know, that’s when I wasn’t so happy. I wasn’t really taking care of myself. I didn’t really care about my health. I just really focused on work.”
After he began suffering from high blood pressure, he went to the doctor to seek treatment and happened to be interviewed by a psychologist working in the doctor’s office. Every time he would meet with his doctor, he would meet with the psychologist beforehand. Eventually she asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he was thinking of leaving teaching and that he wanted to start working with adults. He began to search for jobs on the internet and she also began searching on his behalf and discovered the Integrative Health Coach program at OCC.
“You want to know something funny? When she was asking me questions, she was using a strategy that health coaches use, and it’s called motivational interviewing,” Perez said. “I use those types of questions as a teacher, but then again, I never had them used on me.”
For one of the program's projects, Ronnie interviewed a woman from Children’s Hospital of Orange County and learned that there are a lot of health coaching strategies used by healthcare workers.
Exposing students to working healthcare professionals is an integral part of the program. Recent guest speakers have included Dr. Dana Garfin, Mindfulness Consultant and assistant professor at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing at UC Irvine; Mario Gonzalez, manager of Community Relations for the Port of Long Beach and a former health educator for the City of Long Beach Preventative Health Bureau; and Dr. Prasad Vinjamury, a part-time faculty member at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and full-time professor at Southern California Univ. of Health Sciences. Vinjamury is also a member of the faculty of OCC’s Integrative Health Coach program.
After students get exposed to many of the different complementary alternative medicine (CAM) modalities that are available, they will then have the opportunity to work alongside these types of professionals when they begin the internship portion of the program and can later recommend CAM treatments to patients as they coach them along on the path towards healing.
The Integrative Health Coach program has also been involved in a student wellness pilot program on campus at OCC. Working with multiple departments including health, nutrition, kinesiology and culinary, the team has been developing wellness services for students, with a bigger vision of eventually having them all housed in a real-life building, Konick said.
So far, the program has offered yoga to students on campus and online, a healthy cooking class taught by students in the culinary arts department and mindfulness training.
Students participating in the Integrative Health Coach program will be placed in internships in places like the Hoag Wellness Center, the clinic at the Southern California University of Health Sciences, regional community health centers and even OCC’s campus Health Center.