The Legal Skinny on Health Coaching

This goes out to all my health and wellness coaches! As a certified health coach myself, I remember entering this field, only to realize that my brand spanking new certification (I literally took the test 2 weeks before my wedding and was SO excited I passed) came with some fine print about what I could and couldn’t advise clients about. Typically, health and wellness coaches work with those desiring to establish a healthier lifestyle, whether that includes weight loss, beginning an exercise program, eating healthier, or developing a healthier relationship with food. Many health coaches take their practices online as well, to allow them to serve a greater market virtually – this is what I did! Loved it. While there are many positives to becoming a health coach, there are also several important things to take into consideration from a legal standpoint, and several rules that are critical to follow, in order to stay within the boundaries and guidelines of health coaching. Selfishly, this also allows me to combine my passions for health coaching and the law into one nice, neat package.

In order to make sure you aren’t accidentally breaking any rules, here are my top health coach boundaries to consider:

#1: Define your practice and business – What services do you provide?

The role and definition of a health coach is extremely vague, and can include many different niches within the space. In general, health coaches offer education and support to their clients along their journey to achieving a healthier lifestyle. What does this look like for you personally, and who do you have a passion to serve? Before you go too far, step one is to decide who you want to serve, what type(s) of services you want to offer, and the goals you want to help your clients achieve. Make sure you clearly and concisely define your role as a health or wellness coach, as well as the services you do and do not want to offer. (This will also help you define who your ideal client is, and how you can better speak to her in your copy and sales pages!)

#2: Confirm your state’s laws regarding nutrition and fitness advising

In the health and wellness space, at least within the U.S., one of the most heavily regulated issues is NUTRITION and providing nutritional advice when you are not a registered dietician. Although you may be a health coach certified by companies such as IIN or ACE, or have a degree in health and wellness, these programs typically do not include certifications for nutritional advice, which several states believe should be left only to registered dieticians.

Whether or not you are able to advise regarding nutrition as a health and wellness coach is legally regulated by state – certain states have different standards in which they may or may not allow health coaches to provide advice from a nutritional standpoint, ranging from the least strict, in which there are no regulations or laws surrounding dietetics and nutrition practice, to the strictest, in which it may be illegal to perform individualized nutrition counseling, unless you fall within one of your state’s exemptions. If you live in one of the “strict” states, providing individualized nutrition assessments and counseling is largely limited to registered dieticians. You can check your state’s licensing requirements and regulations HERE, as well as whether you fall within one of the designated exceptions:

Regardless of your certification, a health coach should never attempt to diagnose or treat a medical condition or disease, and should promptly refer a client to the appropriate medical professional if any such conditions are suspected, including eating disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, or otherwise. Although you may be certified as a health coach, unless you are also a medical professional, from a legal standpoint, do not try to treat a client’s medical condition on your own.

#3: Your Website Documents are EXTREMELY Important

While this step is important for all online coaches and entrepreneurs, it is especially crucial for health coaches, and those operating in the health and wellness space. Of the three documents that are necessary for your website, the most important for you as a health coach is the Disclaimer. This is important as it is what will advise those visiting your website that the information on your site is purely for general information and educational purposes only, and does not take the place of a consultation with their private physician or psychiatrist, who can properly evaluate their medical history and provide personalized medical professional care. This Disclaimer should be on your website, any opt-ins or information you offer to your clients, any social media accounts, and any/all of your marketing materials, in order to avoid any confusion as to the services you provide. The last thing you want is for someone to take advice they found on your website over that of their doctor’s and end up getting sick!

Second, it’s also important to have solid Terms and Conditions on your website. This document includes all guidelines and rules for how visitors may utilize your website, and should include additional disclaimers, limitations of liability, and the scope of information/education provided on your website. By confirming in your terms and conditions the limitations on your services, it will help you set clear boundaries (compliant with your state’s regulations) and help avoid any misunderstandings between you and anyone who visits your website or comes into contact with your services or materials.

Lastly, if your website allows visitors to enter any personal information on your website (name, email, comment on a blog, etc.) you are required to have a Privacy Policy in place. This is not specific to health coaches, and is of great importance to anyone operating an interactive website!

#4: Spend time on your Client Agreement

Use a personalized client agreement for each client, that they sign BEFORE they start working with you. Lawyer-approved templates geared toward heath coaching should be fine to use, as long as you make sure to personalize portions of the contract for each client, including what services you’ll be providing, and any other issues that have been discussed with that particular client. Specifically, this document should also include confirmation and a reminder to the client of disclaimers, limitations of liability, acknowledgement that they are voluntarily choosing to work with you, and an understanding that you cannot be responsible for any injury or illness that may occur as a result of working with you, since you are not their doctor and are not privy to their medical history. Especially if you are providing these services virtually, you may not even physically see your client prior to working with them, and cannot be responsible for any health or wellness issues they may have, that you are not aware of. This is also a good place to again outline that they should consult a physician before beginning any diet or exercise program, and again emphasizing that you are not a doctor or other medical professional.

#5: Marketing your Business

From a legal standpoint, there is a difference between providing information (good) and providing advice (could be bad), especially from a health or medical perspective. Depending on where in the United States you are located, this distinction could be a costly mistake if you are providing medical or nutritional advice in a way that is outside the boundaries of your credentials. In order to make sure you are operating within your state’s boundaries, make sure you always keep in mind that you are providing information and education to those wishing to learn more about health and wellness, rather than advice that could be interpreted as medical or other professional advice. When writing your copy, sales pages, and course materials, always keep this in the front of your mind!

And lastly – it may not be a good idea to provide guarantees on your website with respect to outcome or what a client will experience when working with you. In your marketing materials, try to avoid phrases that include suggestions that you can provide “diagnoses” “counseling” “treatment” or “advice” and again, come from a place of providing information and education.

Overall, providing health and wellness services as a health coach is an extremely useful and necessary service. For me personally, I absolutely loved the feeling that I was helping someone else make healthy choices, and learn how to fit exercise into her day! You really do have the power to change your clients’ lives with your work, so get out there and coach! Just remember do it by providing general information and education, rather than giving nutritional or medical advice, and make sure your website and client documents are thorough and complete!

Need website documents, a Client Agreement, or Terms of Use? Head over to my templates center and let’s get you covered!

Disclaimer: just as you are to avoid giving health and medical advice, this post constitutes information only, and is not to be considered legal advice. No attorney-client relationship has formed by your reading this article, and does not take the place of you consulting with your own personal attorney regarding your personal situation.

 

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