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Health Psychology

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that health psychologists are responsible for assisting people to avoid preventable diseases and manage chronic illnesses. They do this by incorporating research and theory in the field of psychology in order to come up with new ways to help patients ensure they are able to lead healthy lifestyles.

What We Do

Health psychology is a reasonably new area of work, and it is evolving very rapidly. Simply put, it is concerned with developing and applying psychological methods to study how behavior is linked to illness, health and health care.

Some of the things health psychologists may do include:

  • Research why people seek health advice and when.
  • Why certain preventative measures are or are not recommended by health care professionals.
  • What the interaction between professionals and their patients is like.
  • How a patient adapts to a certain illness.
  • How physical functioning, health behavior and perception interact.

Furthermore, as a health psychologist, you will often be heavily involved in public health, responses to illness and health care provisions. It is a very wide ranging discipline, which is why it can involve many different areas of work, including:

  • Health risk behaviors, whereby behaviors that could damage health are studied in a psychological manner.
  • Health protective enhancing behaviors, whereby people are taught that certain behaviors will promote their own good health.
  • Health related cognition, where the cognitive processes that are linked to illness and health behavior are studied, with the goal to create interventions.
  • Processes that are of influence to the delivery of health care, most notably communication and dealing with stress.
  • Psychological aspects of illness, whereby the psychological impact of various illnesses on patients and their families/carers are researched to enable enhanced quality of life.

Why It's Hot

Because the field is quite new, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has not yet given health psychologists their own category, listing them instead as "clinical, counseling and school psychologists," with an average annual salary of $67,650 as of May 2012. The top 10% earned more than $110,880 per year. There are many reasons as to why the career is so hot:

  • The field of health care is changing tremendously, which means psychological aspects are becoming more important.
  • Since the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, more people are able to access health care.
  • The stigma on mental health is being broken and there is now greater understanding of how important psychological issues are for overall health.

Work Environment

Health psychologists can work in various fields, mainly depending on the specific area of work they want to focus on. No real counts have been completed yet on how many health psychologists work in which areas. We do know, however, that they work in areas such as:

  • Government, where they develop new policies.
  • Hospitals and health care clinics, where they will work with chronically ill patients, improve relationships between patients and doctors and development treatment plans. Sometimes, health psychologists will specify an area of work such as women's health or pain management.
  • Large businesses, where they can help increase workplace morale, thereby increasing production and retention.
  • University research facilities, to perform new research on the links between psychology and physical health.

It is believed that demand will grow significantly in this field and there have indeed been rises in vacancies in hospitals and various private industries. It is interesting that it is seen as such a new field, however, as the roots are based firmly in antiquity, with various prominent thinkers promoting holistic care, which includes the body and the mind.

How to Do It

If you want to become a health psychologist, you have a very long road ahead of you. Generally, you will need to start with a four year bachelor's degree in psychology if you want to become a psychologist. However, since this field relates specifically to health, other options (such as nursing) also exist.

Once you hold a bachelor's degree, you will need to complete a master's degree, preferably with a specialization in psychology, although areas such as public health policy may also be accepted. It will usually take you around two years to finish this.

Finally, you will need to complete your doctorate degree. If you choose a Ph.D., which takes around five years to achieve, you will more than likely get to work in research. If you opt for the Psy.D., which takes around three years to complete, you will more than likely get to work in direct service delivery. Do make sure that your program is accredited by the APA. Additionally, before you can call yourself a psychologist, you will need to complete supervised working experience. On average, this is a two year period, one year of which can be completed before you graduate from your doctorate program. Hence, do make sure you choose a program that includes a residency or internship.

The final element is to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). The tests is made up of 225 multiple choice questions and covers the eight core areas of psychology. A pass rate is awarded to those who answer at least 70% correctly. The fee for the exam is currently $600, but subject to change.

Pros & Cons

There are various pros and cons to being a health psychologist. In terms of the advantages:

  • It is a new and emerging career, which means demand is high.
  • It is a specialization in which you can make a real meaningful difference in the lives of people.
  • Salary and benefits are very good.
  • You can work in a variety of different settings and organizations.

However, the disadvantages must also be taken into consideration:

  • It can take a long time to become a health psychologist, particularly since a doctorate degree is expected.
  • Licenses tend to be required in each state, which means you may have to repeat some of the licensing process if you were to ever move to another state.
  • You will have to deal with quite a lot of bureaucracy in your work.

Career Path

As a health psychologist, you can work in many different areas of health. Some of the roles you can expect include helping people deal with illness while promoting healthy lifestyles.

There are five basic areas that you are likely to get to work in. Each of these areas has a specific health focus, relating to the psychological process. As such:

  • Clinical health psychologists work with people who have an illness. Your role will be to help them manage their condition on a psychological level. The illness can be either acute or chronic. You may have to work with people who have anxiety over procedures, needle phobia and so on. You may also help to explain certain treatment options and help people with the emotional aspects of procedures such as mastectomies or amputation. Additionally, you are likely to work with with people who suffer from depression as a result of a chronic illness. Finally, you will focus on mental illness prevention, promoting healthy lifestyles.
  • Public health psychologists work with entire populations rather than an individual person. You will most likely be employed within government agencies, focusing on a specific group of people with the goal of improving their overall health. You could, for instance, develop intervention programs to prevent teenage pregnancies, and to help teenage parents to raise healthy children. Alternatively, you could look at common illnesses that affect entire population groups, such as obesity or cardiovascular disease, educating the public about how their behavior contributes to these illnesses. A significant part of your job will be around researching how effective various initiatives are and how they can be improved.
  • Community health psychologists are closely related to public health psychologists, although they tend to have a clearer focus. Your goal will be to identify issues within a community that affect an individual. Each community has a number of unique characteristics, and you will research the effects of this on mental health. Hence, you will identify highly prevalent illnesses and try to identify ways to decrease this through initiatives and education. You will work closely with community members as well.
  • Occupational health psychologists focus on health within the workplace and ensuring employees can maintain good mental and physical health while at work. Various factors can influence this, including temperature, noise levels, interpersonal relationships across the team, job insecurity, physical demands and more. Your role will be around finding ways to minimize the impact of negative factors. You will also research whether there are other elements that could contribute to poor mental and physical health in the workplace. For instance, people in certain professions (teachers, traffic controllers, bus drivers, pilots and so on), are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular risk due to the tremendous responsibility they carry in terms of maintaining the safety and well being of others. As an occupational health psychologist, you will try to identify why this happens and how these risks can be reduced. You will also focus strongly on depression and burnout, which are all factors that affect overall morale in the workplace. You will research this through various studies and try to use the results of this to improve employee engagement and satisfaction.
  • Critical health psychologists focus on health inequalities. Their role is to ensure that health care is delivered fairly and justly. You will look at why there are power imbalances in place, and what changes could be made to public policy in order to resolve these issues. You will mainly work on researching and changing the current health structures, thereby ensuring everybody is able to access health care provision and to live a healthy lifestyle.

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