Telemedicine. Virtual doctor visits. E-patients. Electronic medical records. Healthcare social media. Health apps.

With digital and electronic healthcare options abounding, it’s no wonder that digital coaches have a stronghold in the rheumatoid arthritis patient space.

But 5 or 10 years ago, you may not have been familiar with a digital coach.

Now, online health coaches are everywhere — and some of them are dedicated specifically to helping people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) live better.

New research on the topic was recently presented at the American College of Rheumatology/Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals annual meeting.

The findings showed that “a 12-week, digital health coaching program with personalized support from a dedicated health coach improved well-being and decreased symptoms for participants with rheumatoid arthritis,” according to a press release from the meeting.

The idea is that the health coaches help patients to stay compliant in their care and accountable for their health.

The coaches may also help encourage and motivate patients when it comes to lifestyle changes, offering diet and exercise advice as well as keeping track of symptoms.

While there are smartphone and computer apps to help patients with RA cope — and even keep track of symptoms, doctor appointments, and medications — the addition of a health coach may be beneficial since it provides more personalized, one-on-one attention.

Rheumatoid arthritis patients should remain under the care of a rheumatologist and primary care physician, but adding a digital health coach or RA app to a self-care tool kit can be helpful for disease management.

What the study revealed

In the recent study, 127 people with RA were enrolled in a 12-week digital health coaching program.

Each participant was matched with a nonclinical health coach. These patients were contacted by their coach once per week via telephone.

The discussions centered around principles of patient engagement. They also focused on positive behavior changes.

In a public statement, Uma Srivastava, associate director of strategic partnerships at Pack Health in Alabama, said, “The hope was that when armed with the right information and tools and dedicated one-on-one support on their schedule, participants would be able to improve key heath behaviors as well as key measures of disease management and overall health.”

After the telephone-based interventions, the study participants were surveyed about their behaviors and the status of their disease symptoms, both at baseline and then after completing the 12 full weeks of digital coaching.

Patients were asked to self-report the number of rheumatoid arthritis flares they experienced each month as well as their mental and emotional condition.

The study seemed to show notable improvements.

Patients involved had an average decrease in body mass index, an increase in weekly physical activity, an increase in hours of quality sleep per night, and a reduction in the number of missed medication doses each week.

There were also increases in the participants’ scores in both physical health and mental health categories. The participants’ RA flare frequency also dropped by 50 percent after the patients completed the digital coaching program.

The benefits of coaching

Findings from the study suggest that symptom relief is associated with both improvements in healthy lifestyle behaviors and a reduction in stress.

“Often, patients with RA are overwhelmed, and they require both coaching and care coordination to improve their well-being. However, rheumatologists often lack the time, tools, and training required to effectively coach patients in the office environment,” said Srivastava.

“This study shows that incorporating tools, such as digital remote patient coaching, into the workflow of clinicians can support better outcomes, patient experience, and healthcare utilization. In turn, clinicians are able to overcome barriers such as time, cost, and patient nonadherence to recommended care.”

Diane Williams, a Pennsylvania resident who lives with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, might give digital coaching a try.

“I don’t have a lot of family. So I rely on my social media networks for inspiration and the internet for online education,” she told Healthline. “But I am intrigued by the idea of health coaching to manage my condition. I would be open to trying it and maybe see if being held more accountable and having someone in my corner would help me in my RA and chronic pain situation.”