Should Health and Wellness Coaches Join a Religious/Ecclesiastical Organization?

If you are a fan of our blogs, then you know we have previously written about the legal aspects of spiritual coaching. In that blog, we discuss how practicing spiritual coaching can be legally protected under state law as well as under the U.S. Constitution. Our blog states:

“Thus, to avoid scope of practice and licensure issues, spiritual coaches should offer services that are spiritual or religious in nature, and not therapeutic in nature. Certification from religious organizations can also help the spiritual coach understand their role in helping others achieve wellbeing.”

Interestingly, it has come to our attention that certain groups have formed to offer religious certification or “licenses” to health coaches. These religious licenses may be offered by nonprofit organizations that require membership for a fee. Members of these religious groups must agree to use certain forms and agree to certain tenets of the group. In exchange, the member can state they are part of an official religious organization and have access to legal resources.

The forms that such organizations require members to sign in effect remind coaches that they should not be holding themselves out as state-licensed practitioners (such as physicians, pharmacists or psychologists), they should not advertise that they “treat,” “diagnose,” “prescribe” drugs or supplements, or “cure” disease, that the coach does not replace prescribed medication or treatment from a client’s licensed medical provider, and that what the coach is really offering is education.

In essence, these forms merely describe the scope of health coaching, which is primarily educational in nature. If a health coach crosses the line into offering prescriptions, treatment, cures or diagnoses of disease, then the coach can be accused of the unlicensed practice of medicine or psychotherapy, among other licensed professions, in violation of state law. These religious groups seem to ask coaches to agree to the obvious, but for a fee. The only health coaches who might benefit from joining a religious organization are those that want to do more than educate and inform. For example, the coach may want to order labs and tailor recommendations for each client based on lab results. In that case, offering health coaching through a legitimate religious organization could arguably offer some legal protection through the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but there is no guarantee of such protection. As noted in our previous blog post on spiritual coaching, there have been cases when courts have found a compelling governmental interest to outweigh the right to free exercise of religion. That may be why even the religious organization forms that health coaches who seek membership are asked to sign require the coach to agree to stay “in the coaching lane” and only offer education and information.

Another consideration about these religious groups is how they approach health information privacy. One organization we observed asks clients to agree that any personal information revealed in a coaching session is not protected by HIPAA and that any breach of that information is not the responsibility of any of the coaches or the religious organization.

While it is true that most health coaches with a cash-based practice are not subject to HIPAA privacy and security rules, that doesn’t mean clients of health coaches don’t care about privacy and security of their information. When our firm works with health coaching clients, we encourage our clients to adopt privacy and security practices that will give coaching clients confidence in the service. Asking clients to waive their rights when it comes to the privacy and security of their personal information is just plain bad business practice. Avoiding legal liability of privacy and security breaches may sound great from a legal perspective, but failing to take responsibility for confidential information is unethical, a reckless business practice, and likely illegal under state and perhaps other federal privacy laws, depending on the situation.

Finally, the religious organizations that claim to offer legal protection for health coaches often adhere to one religious denomination. If a coach has a broader concept of what constitutes a religious or spiritual belief, that religious organization may not be a good fit.

The verdict on whether health coaches should join religious organizations for legal “cover” for their coaching practice: if your beliefs align with the religious organization, and you are willing to pay the fees, you may find a community of believers in which your practice can thrive. But, whether belonging to such organization offers greater legal protection from state scope of practice actions is questionable at best. You likely can achieve the same amount of, if not more, protection by creating robust client consent and authorization forms. Our firm can help you with those forms, as well as any other health coaching compliance issues that may arise. Contact us today so we can help your health and wellness coaching practice be the best it can be.