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What Is a Health Psychologist?

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Health psychologist

Health psychologists help prevent illness and promote overall health.

Image courtesy Anna Bryukhanova / iStockPhoto

Health psychology is a specialty area that focuses on how biological, social and psychological factors influence health and illness. Learn more about what health psychologists do, the training and educational requirements and the job outlook in this brief overview of careers in health psychology.

What Do Health Psychologists Do?:

Health psychologists engage in many different job-related tasks. The specific type of work that a health psychologist does on a daily basis may depend on work setting or specialty area. Many health psychologists work directly in clinical settings to help individuals or groups prevent illness and promote healthy behaviors. Others conduct research on health-related issues or influence public policy on health care issues.

  • Clinical Work: In clinical and medical settings, health psychologists often conduct behavioral assessments, clinical interviews and personality tests. Other tasks often involve participating in interventions with individuals or groups. Such interventions may involve educating people about stress reduction techniques, offering smoking cessation tips and teaching people how to avoid unhealthy behaviors.
  • Research: Many health psychologists also conduct research on a variety of health-related issues. For example, researchers may focus such things as the causes of health problems, effective preventative measures, the best health promotion techniques, how to best help people cope with pain or illness and how to get people to seek treatment for medical conditions.
  • Public Policy Work: Some health psychologists work in government or private agency settings to influence public policy on health issues. This work might involve lobbying government agencies, addressing inequalities in health care or advising governmental bodies on health care reform.

Where Do Health Psychologists Work?:

Health psychologists work in a wide variety of settings including hospitals, health care clinics, private corporations and universities. Some health psychologists work in settings that specialize in a particular area of health care such as oncology, pain management, women's health and smoking cessation programs. Other health psychologists work in government settings, often administering community health programs or influencing public policy.

How Much Do Health Psychologists Earn?:

Salaries for health psychologists typically depend on a number of factors including geographic location, work setting, educational background and job experience. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), licensed psychologists working within direct human services (of which health psychology comprises 13-percent) earned an average of $80,000 per year. Other estimates suggest that licensed health psychologists typically earn anywhere from $40,000 (entry-level) to $85,000 (advanced-level).

Training and Educational Requirements:

Most licensed health psychologists hold a doctorate-level (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) degree in psychology. In many cases, health psychologists pursue an undergraduate degree in general psychology and then specialize in health psychology in graduate school. Some programs offer degrees specifically in health psychology. The emphasis in these programs can vary - some focus on preparing students for clinical careers while others emphasize the role of research.

Those who want to be licensed in clinical or counseling psychology must complete a minimum of a one-year internship after earning a doctorate degree. The American Board of Professional Psychology also offers board certification in health psychology.

While a doctorate degree is usually required in order to become a licensed health psychologist, there are some employment opportunities for those with a bachelor's degree or master's degree. Employment at the bachelor's level is limited, but some find work in community mental health offices or correctional facilities. Those with a master's degree enjoy more employment opportunities, although they typically work under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist.

Subfields Within Health Psychology

There are a number of distinct specialty areas within health psychology:

  • Clinical Health Psychology: This subfield of health psychology is strongly linked to clinical psychology and involves activities such as psychotherapy, behavior modification and health education.

  • Community Health Psychology: Individuals working in this subfield of health psychology often focus on developing interventions and prevention techniques at the community-level. These professionals may conduct assessments of communities or work with groups to encourage healthy behaviors or promote behavior change.

  • Public Health Psychology: These health psychology professionals focus on understanding health at the population-level and often offer advice to health care professionals, government agencies and health educators.

  • Occupational Health Psychology: This is an emerging subfield within health psychology that incorporates industrial-organizational psychology and related disciplines. Occupational health psychologists focus on understanding how workplace issues are linked to both physical and mental illness.

Job Outlook

According to APA Division 38 Health Psychology, the job outlook for health psychologists is strong, partly due to the increased hiring of psychologists by hospitals and other medical establishments. Fortunately, health psychologists have a diverse range of employment areas to choose from including colleges and universities, private practices, rehabilitation centers, government agencies and mental health clinics.

References

Committee on Education and Training, Division 38. (2009). Becoming a health psychologist. Found online at http://www.health-psych.org/AboutHowtoBecome.cfm

Kuhlberg, J. (2000). Careers in health psychology. Found online at http://www.wcupa.edu/_ACADEMICS/sch_cas.psy/Career_Paths/Health/career02.htm

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