Research continues to show that the body and mind are intricately connected — what affects one can affect the other. The profession that specializes in this intersection of medicine and psychology is called health psychology. Explore this career guide to discover the answers to the question, “What does a health psychologist do?"
It’s common knowledge that tobacco causes life-threatening diseases, sugary foods cause obesity, and that regular exercise is essential for a healthy heart. Yet, people still routinely make poor lifestyle choices that can lead to adverse health outcomes. Why? This is the type of question that a health psychologist seeks answers to.
Health psychology seeks to understand how psychological, social and biological influences impact a person’s overall health, including their predisposition to developing illnesses. In other words, health psychology professionals study how and why people make lifestyle choices that affect their physical wellness. The overarching goal is to empower individuals to learn how to adopt healthier lifestyle habits and make better choices that reduce their risk of developing health problems.
Can a Health Psychologist Specialize?
There are options for specializing in a subfield of health psychology. Consider the four main areas of this field:
- Clinical health psychology – A clinical health psychologist is a licensed professional who provides direct patient care. These professionals work one-on-one with individuals to help them learn how to adjust their lifestyle and behaviors to improve their physical health.
- Community health psychology – A community health psychologist focuses on studying the health issues and trends of a community to improve the health of that community.
- Occupational health psychology – The average person spends much of their life at work, so it makes sense that one’s job can significantly influence one’s health. For example, one might experience chronic diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle or possible exposure to toxic substances in the workplace. An occupational health psychologist works with companies and individual employees to promote business-wide health.
- Public health psychology – Public health psychologists study health issues and trends on a population level, with a focus on the psychosocial aspects of illnesses. Public health psychologists may work to influence public policy and establish public health programs. For example, a professional might establish a program intended to teach teenagers about the dangers of smoking or unprotected sex.
Where Can Health Psychologists Work?
Health psychologists can work across a range of settings. They generally work collaboratively with other professionals in a variety of fields and disciplines. For example, a public health psychologist may coordinate their work with an epidemiologist, while an occupational health psychologist may work with a human resources manager to implement company-wide changes.
Indeed, the specialization chosen by the health psychologist will significantly influence their work setting. In general, however, these professionals can work in any of the following settings:
- Hospitals and healthcare clinics
- Community outreach programs and government health agencies
- Private corporations
- Specialty wellness providers (e.g., women’s health, cancer treatment or smoking cessation programs)
A Typical Health Psychologist Job Description
It’s challenging to develop a “typical” health psychologist job description because a daily routine for these professionals is highly dependent on their area of specialization as well as their employer. Some health psychologists are clinicians who treat patients, some focus on research, and some work to advance public health policy. In general, however, a health psychologist may do any of the following:
- Conduct behavioral assessments and clinical interviews with patients
- Help patients come to terms with difficult diagnoses and develop coping skills
- Develop patient-specific interventions tailored to patients’ individual health issues
- Deliver health education to patients, helping them overcome their unique obstacles to making healthy choices
- Conduct research on various issues in the field, such as by seeking to understand why some patients might not follow medical guidance
- Lobby government agencies on healthcare reform initiatives and on correcting healthcare inequalities
Where Can Health Psychology Specialists Work With a Bachelor’s Degree?
There are numerous job opportunities available to those with a bachelor’s degree. However, far more opportunities are available to health psychology professionals who earn a graduate degree. Candidates holding bachelor’s degrees could pursue roles as community health workers or health education specialists.
These two roles involve some overlapping duties. However, a community health worker largely focuses on advocating for the health needs of residents in a community. They may conduct outreach programs, connect individuals to community resources, and provide some health education.
A health education specialist focuses on teaching individuals about healthy behaviors. They may work one-on-one with clients and/or conduct group outreach programs. Although some employers of community health workers and health education specialists may require some graduate education and/or certification, others accept job candidates with a bachelor’s degree.
Where Can Health Psychology Specialists Work With a Master’s Degree?
There are more job opportunities available for candidates holding master’s degrees compared to those with a bachelor’s degree. Anyone with a master’s degree can pursue opportunities available to those with a bachelor’s degree, such as jobs within community health outreach programs. However, these individuals might also pursue a role in research. A master’s degree holder could be qualified to work as a research assistant or behavioral specialist. These professionals often work under the supervision of a licensed, doctorate-holding psychologist. In designing research studies, these professionals might seek to answer questions such as the following:
- How can health psychologists motivate individuals to seek medical care, both preventive and otherwise?
- What are the main causes of various health problems, and how do psychosocial factors influence them?
- What are the most effective techniques for convincing people to adopt healthier lifestyle habits?
- How can people best cope with chronic pain?
Where Can Licensed Health Psychology Specialists Work?
A health psychologist who possesses a doctoral degree and state licensure has the most job opportunities available, compared to those with a master’s or bachelor’s degree. These professionals can work independently in research or clinical practice.
In research settings, health psychologists may supervise teams of research assistants who are exploring health issues ranging from obesity prevention to patient adherence. In clinical settings, licensed health psychologists typically work one-on-one with patients or with small groups of patients. They can help patients cope with their diagnoses, understand the importance of following medical guidance, cope with chronic pain and lead a healthier lifestyle.
Is There a Demand for Health Psychologists?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the agency that is responsible for tracking and analyzing employment data in the U.S. Although the BLS doesn’t track data for individual specializations within the field of psychology, it does offer statistics for all types of psychologists collectively.
According to the BLS, the job growth rate for all types of psychologists is expected to be 8% through 2030. This rate of growth is comparable to the average for all professions, and it indicates that about 13,500 new job openings will be available each year through the end of the decade.1
You can pursue a meaningful career that will enable you to make a positive difference in the lives of others when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. Here, you can choose from a range of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs in psychology, including the Master of Science in Psychology with an Emphasis in Health Psychology degree. Graduates will emerge with strong competencies in promoting positive health behaviors, effecting change on a community-wide scale and serving as an advocate for others.
1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists.
Approved by the Assistant Psychology Professor of College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Sept. 1, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.