What is a Nurse Coach? A Deeper Look at This Holistic Nursing Role
By Robbie Gould on 07/18/2023
In a world where consultation, sutures and a spoonful of sugar collide, a nursing role unlike any other is emerging: the nurse coach. They navigate the clinic and hospital halls ready to dispense equal parts medical expertise and lifestyle education. This article will explore the transformative journey of becoming a nurse coach, where nursing knowledge and patient empowerment intertwine to guide patients toward holistic well-being.
Think of a nurse coach (or nurse health coach) as a combination of Florence Nightingale and Tim Robbins with a sprinkle of Mary Poppin's magic and Martha Stewart's ingenuity. Armed with their clipboards, prescription pads and an arsenal of wise anecdotes, nurse coaches heal patients’ minds, bodies and spirits.
So, whether you are a nursing student or already established in the nursing world, hunker down, grab some tea and prepare to explore the realm of the nurse coach role.
What is a nurse coach
A nurse health coach is a unicorn in scrubs. They are skilled registered nurses (RNs) who integrate coaching principles into nursing practice. They have been trained to provide purposeful, results-oriented and structured patient care in an effort to help clients achieve goals.
Types of nurse health coaches
There are two types of nurse health coaches the American Holistic Nursing Association (AHNA) certifies.1
Regardless of the credential you pursue, you need to complete the same prerequisites, study the same curriculum and pass the same certification exam. The only difference between the two is if you have certification in holistic nursing, you will receive the HWNC-BC title. If you don't, you will receive the NC-BC credential. Both certify you as a nurse health coach qualified to guide many future patients.
Holistic nursing and nurse coaching are intricately connected, as both share the belief that healing involves the integration of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of a person's life.
Addressing the root causes of illness and promoting wellness holistically means considering the unique needs and circumstances of each patient. This approach aligns perfectly with nurse coaching, which extends beyond traditional nursing practices to provide tailored guidance, support and empowerment to each patient.
Nurse Coach (NC-BC)
RNs who don’t hold a holistic nursing certification can earn the Nurse Coach credential.
Health and Wellness Nurse Coach (HWNC-BC)
Registered nurses who have obtained one of the holistic nursing certifications can gain the Health and Wellness Nurse Coach credential. This credential is holistic nurse board certified.
What do nurse coaches do?
Nurse health coaches are guides, allies and advocates who promote health and offer personalized support to patients. They educate, advise and ultimately empower their patients to take charge of their health and well-being.
While that is an important aspect of many nursing jobs, nurse health coaches specifically employ theories and principles from wellness coaching and the patient-centric care model to holistically nurture and enhance the growth, healing and overall well-being of patients.
Nurse coaches can:
- Interpret and track lab and test results
- Evaluate the effects of medications
- Employ health assessment tools to inform future wellness sessions
- Customize health assessment results to address lifestyle obstacles
- Identify the specific daily health concerns that their clients face
- Teach new life skills and wellness strategies
Primary focus areas for nurse coaches involve...
Collaboration with clients
Nurse health coaches work closely with clients to establish a collaborative relationship based on trust and mutual respect.
Setting and achieving goals
Nurse health coaches assist clients in defining clear and achievable health goals. They help clients develop action plans, identify barriers and create strategies to overcome challenges, ultimately supporting them in reaching their desired outcomes.
Providing education and guidance
A nurse health coach provides guidance on making informed decisions and adopting healthy lifestyle habits. As a result, they empower patients to make healthy, informed decisions.
Facilitating behavior change
Nurse coaches employ coaching techniques to support clients in making sustainable behavior changes.
Nurse coaches perform comprehensive assessments that take into account clients' physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being, and incorporate these factors into their coaching approach.
A coach nurse provides a safe and non-judgmental space for clients to express their emotions, fears and concerns related to their health.
Collaboration with other health professionals
Nurse health coaches ensure effective communication and coordination between healthcare providers to provide holistic and integrated care.
Nurse coaches regularly assess patients' progress toward their goals, using objective measures and client feedback. They adjust coaching strategies and interventions as needed to maximize outcomes and address any barriers or challenges.
How to become a nurse coach
Becoming a nurse health coach starts with a solid foundation in nursing, typically that means gaining a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree (BSN), along with valuable clinical experience as an RN. From there, aspiring nurse coaches can explore certified nurse coach programs that provide specialized education and training in coaching principles and methodologies.
By completing these programs, nurses gain the skills and knowledge to help clients achieve their health goals and overall well-being. After meeting program requirements and passing the certification exam, nurses can proudly become certified nurse coaches.
It is important to note that if you hold an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a practical nursing diploma, you can also become eligible to sit for the nurse coach exam, but the path would look slightly different than those with a BSN – read on for more on that!
The 8 steps to becoming a certified nurse coach
Now that you’ve gotten some details on what nurse coaching looks like and the background requirements, you might be a little overwhelmed. It’s a lot of information! Here’s a breakdown of the steps you could take to pursue this role to simplify matters.
1. Obtain a nursing degree
Typically, nurse health coach programs require a BSN. An ADN or a practical nursing diploma could allow you to be eligible to sit for the nurse health coach exam, but you will have to meet slightly different criteria than those with a BSN.3
2. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX®)
Pass this crucial nursing exam and obtain your state RN license.
3. Gain clinical experience
Acquire clinical experience as a registered nurse to develop a strong foundation of nursing knowledge.
To be eligible to take the nurse coach exam, RNs with a BSN degree need at least two years of experience as a full-time, active RN or 4,000 hours part-time within the past five years.
If you have an ADN or nursing diploma, you will need to double that. To be eligible to sit for the exam, you will need to have at least 4 years of experience as an active, practicing RN or 8,000 hours part-time, within the past 5 years.
4. Gain coaching experience
A minimum of 60 hours of coaching experience is required, which must be mentored and/or supervised by a certified nurse coach supervisor. Additionally, a validation letter from a certified nurse coach is also required.
5. Complete your continuing nursing education
You will need to complete at least 60 Continuing Nursing Education (CNE) credits within the past 3 years.2
6. Enroll and graduate from a certified nurse coach program
Enroll in an accredited nurse coaching program that meets the certification standards.
7. Pass the Nurse Coach certification exam
The exam is administered by the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation (AHNCC) and it covers various topics related to nursing, coaching principles, holistic health and client-centered care.3 The exam costs $425 (and AHNA members receive a $50 discount).
8. Maintain certification
You must renew your nurse coach certification every 5 years and meet all the professional development requirements, including:
- Maintain unrestricted RN licensure
- Be an active, practicing nurse coach
- Complete 100 CNE contact hours or equivalent credits through professional development activities
How do you know if you are eligible to become a nurse coach?
Most certified nurse health coaching programs require candidates to hold a BSN from an accredited nursing school. However, if you hold an ADN or nursing diploma, you will be eligible to take the exam if you have met their experience requirements.
Most aspiring nurse health coaches will obtain certification from the American Holistic Nurses Association. However, national certification is not mandatory to practice as a nurse health coach (only your state RN licensure is mandatory).
If you are an international nurse, the AHNCC will review international degrees to determine their equivalency to United States (US) nursing programs.
If you hold a BSN, you will need to have two years full-time or 4,000 hours as a part-time registered nurse, within the past five years, to be eligible to sit for the nurse coach exam. And if you have an ADN or nursing diploma, you'll need to have 4 years full-time or 8,000 hours as a part-time registered nurse.
Also, you will need experience coaching. To become eligible to sit for the nurse coach exam, you will need to accrue at least 60 hours of supervised nurse coaching experience and a validation letter from your certified nurse health coach supervisor.
Top skills for nurse coaches
- Goal setting
- Ability to actively listen
- Empathy and compassion
- Nursing knowledge and skills, including nutrition, physical activity and stress management
How long does it take to become a nurse coach?
The time it takes to become a national board-certified nurse health coach can vary depending on several factors, including your prior education, experience and the path you choose to obtain certification. According to the AHNA, here’s how long a typical journey to becoming a nurse health coach may take once you hold your RN license:
The length of time to accumulate wellness coaching and clinical experience can vary, but it typically ranges from 2-4 years, depending on the work setting, your education and employment opportunities. If you have an ADN, you will need to get 8 years of RN experience under your belt first.
Nurse health coach program
These programs can range from several months up to a year.
The time it takes you to prep and pass the coach nurse certification exam is dependent upon several variables, like your prior knowledge and study habits and methods. This step of the process usually takes about 3-6 months, or even up to a year.
We recommend researching specific programs and the requirements set forth by certifying bodies to have a more accurate understanding of the amount of time it would take you to obtain the nurse health coach certification.
Nurse health coach salary
The average annual salary of a nurse coach can vary depending on several factors such as location, experience, education, certifications and the employing organization. Nurse coaches may work in a variety of settings, which can also impact their earning potential.
It is difficult to track down reliable salary figures for nurse health coaches. To obtain the most up-to-date and accurate information on nurse health coach salaries, check out job postings or consult with professional organizations in the nursing field.
Important questions about nurse coaching
Who hires nurse health coaches?
Nurse health coaches work in a variety of settings and they can be hired by any healthcare organization and institution that values the integration of holistic care and patient empowerment.1 This includes hospitals, clinics, wellness centers, private practice, insurance companies and corporate wellness programs.
Nurse health coaches may also find opportunities in educational institutions, community health centers and government agencies. And some nurse coaches choose to work independently and offer their services as consultants or through their own business.
Is nurse coaching a specialty?
Yes, nurse health coaching is considered a nursing specialty. It focuses on applying coaching principles and techniques within a nursing framework to support clients in achieving their health goals and promoting overall well-being.
Who offers credentials for nurse coaches?
The AHNCC establishes the standards, requirements and guidelines for nurse coach certification, and they administer the certification exams. They also ensure that nurse coaches meet the necessary qualifications and uphold the standards of practice in the field.
Is a nurse coach the same as a nurse educator?
No, a nurse health coach and a nurse educator are not the same roles, although they both involve aspects of teaching and guiding individuals.
A nurse health coach primarily focuses on supporting and empowering individuals to achieve their health goals and enhance overall well-being.
On the other hand, a nurse educator is primarily responsible for teaching and educating nursing students or other healthcare professionals.
Is there a difference between a nurse health coach and a health coach?
Yes, there is a difference between a nurse health coach and a health coach, although they share similarities in their aim to support individuals in achieving their health and wellness goals.
Nurse health coaches are registered nurses who have undergone additional training and certification in nurse health coaching. They integrate their nursing expertise with coaching principles to provide a holistic approach to care. Nurse coaches have a deep understanding of medical conditions, healthcare systems and the unique needs of patients. They can address not only the physical aspects but also the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of health.
A health coach focuses on guiding individuals toward better health and well-being, and they come from different educational backgrounds, such as nutrition, fitness or psychology. Their approach is typically centered around behavior change, lifestyle modifications and goal setting. While health coaches may have knowledge of general health and wellness practices, they do not possess the same level of medical expertise as nurse coaches.
How old is the nurse coach profession?
Nurse coaching is relatively new compared to more traditional nursing roles. Recognizing the importance of incorporating health and wellness into nursing, the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation introduced the Nurse Coach (NC-BC) and Health and Wellness Nurse Coach (HWNC-BC) certifications in 2012.1
Imagine a career of coaching and caring
Becoming a nurse health coach begins with becoming a nurse. Are you ready?
The journey to nurse coaching is challenging but rewarding if you aspire to combine your nursing expertise with coaching principles. You could embark on a path to utilize the principles of holistic care, lifelong learning and empowerment for your patients.
Get a better idea of how all the nursing credentials and education paths work and check out “A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Levels of Nursing Credentials.”
Rasmussen University graduates do not qualify for this credential, additional qualification requirements are required.
1American Holistic Nurses Association. Nurse Coaching. Accessed 5/27/23. https://www.ahna.org/American-Holistic-Nurses-Association/Resources/Nurse-Coaching#:~:text=Nurse%20Coach%20Certification,%2DBC)%20certifications%20in%202012.
2American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation. Certification. Accessed 5/26/23. https://www.ahncc.org/certification/holistic-nurse-coach/
3American Holistic Nurses Association. AHNA Approved CNE Activities. Accessed 5/27/23. https://www.ahna.org/American-Holistic-Nurses-Association/Directories/Approved-CNE-Programs-Directory