September 30, 2019

Navigating Uncharted Territory with Recovery Coaches

For patients dealing with substance use disorders (SUDs), taking the first step towards recovery can feel like stepping into the unknown. Dealing with new clinicians and programs can be overwhelming, but the worst part of all is often feeling like no one truly understands what they are going through. Not even the most prestigious medical schools can teach how it truly feels to experience recovery.

The Population Health team at Partners HealthCare recognizes that recovery from SUDs is a personal and complex human experience that calls for support from a unique member of the primary care team: a recovery coach. Recovery coaches are non-clinical individuals who provide direct peer support to patients with SUDs. Also known as peer support specialists, these individuals have lived-experience in recovery themselves, which equips them with knowledge, skills, and empathy that makes them invaluable to the patients they support. In general, recovery coaches are available to meet with patients as needed to provide information around multiple pathways of recovery and help them get connected to recovery resources within the community. At the same time, the role of the recovery coach is flexible, which allows for a personalized approach to support that meets the patient where they are.

“I’ve done recovery before the coaches and I’ve done recovery after the coaches. It’s a huge step in the right direction,” says Christian*, a Partners patient in recovery from opioid-use disorder.

Filling in the Gaps

Recovery coaches provide support not only to patients, but also to other members of the care team. Social worker Marna McNulty, LICSW, has worked with recovery coaches extensively in her role at North Shore Medical Center.

“I view recovery coaching as a cross between formal support and social support, which is really attractive to patients because it’s not intimidating. It’s something they can use at their own speed, and is very tailored to what the individual patient is comfortable with,” says McNulty.

She explains that she’s limited in the support she can provide, and it can be frustrating if a patient isn’t ready for treatment. For example, if a patient is not ready to enter a detox facility, it can feel like she’s hit a dead end until the patient is ready to take the next step.

“Now that I can offer the support of a recovery coach, I feel relieved because I know I am providing a valuable resource that the patient will benefit from in a very significant way,” she says.

On the Front Lines

One of the most important roles of the recovery coach is to act as a care coordinator who helps guide patients to resources they may need. Recovery coaches can help connect patients with clinical resources—things like psychiatric services, women’s health services, or clinicians who can provide medications to treat opioid or alcohol dependency. Additionally, they can connect patients to non-clinical resources that help address patient issues related to the social determinants of health—things like housing, nutrition, transportation and personal safety.

At the Brigham Health Bridge Clinic, care teams provide rapid access to treatment for patients using an evidence-based, harm reduction approach that treats their medical needs while offering resources to address non-clinical social issues. This dichotomy of clinical and social interventions creates a more holistic view of the patient’s health and wellbeing.

recovery coach

Pictured: Windia Rodriguez at the Brigham Health Bridge Clinic.

“I’ve never worked with a group of more compassionate and empathetic individuals,” says Windia Rodriguez, Recovery Coach Team Lead at Partners HealthCare. “There’s no judgment, everyone is so welcoming.”

Available resources provided by the Bridge Clinic include lunch vouchers to a restaurant inside the Brigham, as well as no-cost options for taking cabs, Uber, or Lyft to get to the clinic for treatment. In keeping with the harm reduction model the Bridge Clinic adheres to, resources like Narcan and needle-cleaning kits are also available.

“We all have a deep understanding of addiction and realize that people in recovery sometimes do and say things that don’t reflect who they really are,” says Rodriguez. “We look beyond the addiction. We can see the person underneath and we are ready to help in any way they need.”

Innovators in the Field

McNulty shared how impressed she is with the passion and initiative that the recovery coaches bring to the table. “They are really pioneers in this area, and every day they continue to make strides on how we can balance the traditional medical model with genuine human connection through this kind of social support.”

In addition to fulfilling their originally intended roles, some recovery coaches within the Partners system have gone above and beyond to create new recovery resources on their own. For instance, North Shore recovery coach Richard Zombeck created the Recovery Binder, a website launched last year with the hopes of fulfilling a need in the recovery community for consolidated and informative resources about recovery. He’s also started a personal podcast about his work. These resources have proven helpful not only to those who are working in recovery but also to patients in all stages of recovery themselves.

Moving Forward Together

Recovery coaches not only address patients’ needs on an individual level, they are also changing the dialogue about SUDs treatment across Massachusetts. When she’s not meeting with her patients, Rodriguez also serves as a co-facilitator for the Recovery Coach Learning Community in Boston. The group’s mission is, “to build a statewide network through regional coalitions of Recovery Coaches and Supervisors who uphold fidelity to the addictions peer recovery coaching model, thereby strengthening and reinforcing the value of this expanding workforce.”

“People are doing things differently across different organizations in the state, so this community helps us all get on the same page and break down those silos,” says Rodriguez.

As the state of Massachusetts continues to refine the role of the recovery coach, Partners will work alongside this organization and others to understand how we can optimize the use of recovery coaches to benefit our patients.

Recovery coaches have proven themselves to be effective in helping SUDs patients at Partners, and clinics across our system continue to bring on these valuable staff members as a way to support patients. For those who feel like they are entering uncharted territory as they begin their recovery, meeting a recovery coach is like finding a map. As Rodriguez says of her own experience, “In my journey of recovery, what’s kept me going was other people in recovery.”


Want to learn more? Read one patient’s journey towards recovery.

*First names used only to protect patient privacy. 

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