Why AI Tools Can Assist, But Not Replace Health Coaches

Sandra Scheinbaum, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, Inc.

Last month, Apple revealed that the company plans to release a generative AI tool called “Quartz,” which will utilize data gathered from Apple watches to create personalized health coaching programs for its users.

Generative AI has been advancing in leaps and bounds, such that an AI coach would have capabilities far beyond simply directing users to eat this (not that), sleep more and exercise longer. Rather, this AI would be able to ask probing questions to users, have “conversations” and work with them as a more-than-acceptable simulacrum of a human being.

Apple is not the only one venturing into AI health coaching; other companies are creating similar products. The proliferation of these devices may lead health coaches to wonder if their work will still be relevant and needed in the coming era. It’s a reasonable question, but one that I fundamentally believe is not going to come to fruition, because the human side of health coaching cannot be automated. There are a few reasons why.

1. The Power Of Human-To-Human Connection

When people talk intimately and authentically one-on-one in a way that helps to bring peace of mind to both participants, we call this a heart-centered interaction. Research shows that social connections like these are critical to health and well-being, yielding lower rates of anxiety and depression and even a more robust immune system. Isolation, conversely, puts people at risk of depression and higher blood pressure and cortisol levels.

AI chatbots are very good at mimicking human speech. But they cannot mimic the feeling of talking directly to a real person, making eye contact and syncing up with their energy, breathing and mood. These interactions are vital to a productive health coaching relationship—and they simply cannot take place in a coaching program overseen by a bot.

2. The Importance Of Accountability

One of the most important aspects of health coaching is to be a guide in the hero’s journey—in this case, a client who is doing the work to transform their own life. Part of the way we guide our clients is by holding them accountable. In many cases, they absolutely know what changes they need to make, and why they need to make them. What they need from coaches is encouragement, motivation and someone to foster accountability—not to the coach, but to themselves—that enables them to complete whatever tasks are necessary to accomplish their health transformation.

An AI bot can certainly offer encouragement and motivation—but can it offer that true sense of accountability that a human provides? Think about how often we ignore our devices: Our language-learning app that reminds us when it’s time to practice, our calorie-counting apps that tell us when we’ve reached our daily limit, our smart watches that tell us if we’ve slept or moved enough today. Would our responses be substantively different if the device was an AI?

3. The Nuance Of A Coaching Relationship

Part of what is special about a coaching relationship is the ability to puzzle out challenges together. Maybe a person is having trouble implementing health recommendations—say, for their diet—because they have many responsibilities that interfere with their ability to do so: an elderly parent who needs care, small children at home or a spouse or partner who has a work schedule that takes them away constantly. Maybe they have financial challenges, or a history of anxiety and depression that impede their ability to follow through on a plan. There can be any number of reasons why a person may struggle to take even steps they know will benefit them.

A health coach is trained to be an empathetic, supportive partner who has understands the context of a client’s unique situation and challenges. They can work with clients to help them implement recommendations they may have trouble with for reasons completely outside of themselves and their own desires. A good health coach enables clients to make lifestyle changes that work for and within their lives. An AI tool can “talk” sympathetically, and encouragingly, and respond to questions as it’s been trained to—but it lacks the context, perspective and life experience to truly empathize with a client and help them find solutions that work for their unique life situation.

4. Privacy And Confidentiality

From a data compliance standpoint, companies working with AI are constantly working to ensure that users’ sensitive health data remain secure. But these efforts are often unsuccessful, as every highly publicized data breach or hack would demonstrate. Generative AI tools are particularly challenging in this regard because they must be “fed” on existing data to be trained, and continue to be fed with each use; this means that, in a sense, they capture whatever is put into them. The data is then subject to breaches due to security flaws, unauthorized access and evolving regulations that are vulnerable to exploitation.

When speaking with a health coach, there is an expectation of complete privacy. With a human, confidentiality is part of the job. With AI tools, there is far less of a guarantee that sensitive health information will not inadvertently become available to the wrong hands.

None of this is to suggest that there is no role for AI in health coaching. Indeed, data collected by wearables and user-input apps and analyzed or synthesized by AI tools can be incredibly useful, with coaches and clients working together to derive its implications and make lifestyle modifications accordingly. But health coaches should not fear replacement by AI, because their humanity is of the utmost value in coaching—a key ingredient to personal transformation, and something that, by definition, no bot can ever manifest.


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