Providers at Mass General are taking steps to make care more effective, empowering and even enjoyable for patients with chronic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and depression.

In 2019, a small group of providers within the Division of General Internal Medicine (DGIM) came together informally with the idea of developing a clinical program that would focus on helping patients make changes to their lifestyle in areas such as nutrition, stress, exercise and sleep. Since then, the group has grown to include 51 MGHers and is now known as the Healthy Lifestyle Program (HLP).

“The vision of this program is to establish the practice of healthy lifestyle change as the standard of care for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease,” says Jacob Mirsky, MD, medical director of the HLP. “Every day, we are inspiring patients to make sustainable, individualized evidence-based healthy lifestyle changes.”

The program hosts frequent Lifestyle Medicine Virtual Group Visits led by either a physician or nurse practitioner alongside one of HLP’s health and wellness coaches. These one-hour sessions offer an alternative approach to care, with patients meeting virtually in groups based on similar diagnoses rather than one-on-one with their provider in an office setting.

The first part of each session includes didactic discussions facilitated by a physician or nurse practitioner. Providers educate patients on the connection between healthy lifestyle change and topics such as hypertension, diabetes, nutrition, brain care, insomnia and stress reduction. Patients are encouraged to engage in these discussions and consider how they can implement what they’ve learned into their everyday lives.

The remainder of the session is dedicated to individual check-ins for each patient with the provider and one of the program’s health and wellness coaches. Each patient speaks in front of the group about their goals for behavior change and shares what progress they’ve made. Following the group visits, patients have the option to schedule free one-on-one coaching sessions.

“Patients often tell me group sessions not only impact them, but also their families and friends,” says Anna Baggett, project manager and health and wellness coach in the DGIM HLP. “They’re bringing the information they learn back home and teaching others to create healthy habits.”

Baggett also says the groups provide a dedicated space for patients to learn about health and well-being. With so much misinformation existing about healthy living, it can be difficult for them to know what is accurate.

“Providers in this program are a trusted source,” says Barbara Canada, program director of the DGIM HLP. “The magic happens when patients receive information in a way they can understand and feel safe asking questions.”

This environment makes many patients feel like part of a larger community – some have even been joining sessions for two years and have achieved more milestones related to their health than they ever anticipated.

“Patients love connecting with each other,” says Mirsky. “Especially early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, they were grateful for the opportunity to focus on something positive with people who were experiencing similar struggles. That focus on health rather than disease during our discussions really makes a difference for them.”

Mirsky says providers look forward to the group sessions as well. They have more time to spend with patients in this setting and are able to speak about topics they’re passionate about.

Looking toward the future, the HLP hopes to see the program continue to grow on virtual platforms and in underserved communities, with programming specifically for Spanish-speaking patients.

“It has been a joy to help build this team from scratch,” Canada says. “There is so much passion within this program, and that will only help it grow.”

Click here to learn more about the Healthy Lifestyle Program.