Health Psychology


Prepared by the Committee on Education and Training, Division 38; Martita Lopez, Chair; Kenneth R. Jones, Subcommittee Chair.
Visit theĀ Division 38 Health Psychology Home Page.

What a Health Psychologist Does

Recent advances in psychological, medical, and physiological research have led to a new way of thinking about health and illness. This conceptualization, labeled the Biopsychosocial Model, views health and illness as the product of a combination of factors including biological characteristics (e.g., genetic predisposition), behavioral factors (e.g., lifestyle, stress, health beliefs), and social conditions (e.g., cultural influences, family relationships, social support).

Psychologists who strive to understand how biological, behavioral, and social factors influence health and illness are called health psychologists. The term “health psychology” is often interchanged with the terms “behavioral medicine” or “medical psychology”. In contemporary research and medical settings, health psychologists work with many different health care professionals (e.g., physicians, dentists, nurses, physician’s assistants, dietitians, social workers, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, and chaplains) to conduct research and provide clinical assessment and treatment services. Many health psychologists focus on prevention through research and clinical interventions designed to foster health and reduce the risk of disease. While more than half of health psychologists provide clinical services as part of their duties, many health psychologists function in non-clinical roles primarily involving teaching and research.

Work Setting of a Health Psychologist

Health psychologists participate in health care in a multitude of settings including primary care programs, inpatient medical units, and specialized health care programs such as pain management, rehabilitation, women’s health, oncology, smoking cessation, headache management, and various other programs. They also work in colleges and universities, corporations, and for governmental agencies.

Clinical Activities

Assessment approaches often include cognitive and behavioral assessment, psychophysiological assessment, clinical interviews, demographic surveys, objective and projective personality assessment, and various other clinical and research-oriented protocols. Interventions often include stress management, relaxation therapies, biofeedback, psychoeducation about normal and patho-physiological processes, ways to cope with disease, and cognitive-behavioral and other psychotherapeutic interventions. Healthy people are taught preventive health behaviors. Both individual and group interventions are utilized. Frequently, health psychology interventions focus upon buffering the effect of stress on health by promoting enhanced coping or improved social support utilization.

Research Activities

Health psychologists are on the leading edge of research focusing on the biopsychosocial model in areas such as HIV, oncology, psychosomatic illness, compliance with medical regimens, health promotion, and the effect of psychological, social, and cultural factors on numerous specific disease processes (e.g., diabetes, cancer, hypertension and coronary artery disease, chronic pain, and sleep disorders). Research in health psychology examines: the causes and development of illness, methods to help individuals develop healthy lifestyles to promote good health and prevent illness, the treatment people get for their medical problems, the effectiveness with which people cope with and reduce stress and pain, biopsychosocial connections with immune functioning, and factors in the recovery, rehabilitation, and psychosocial adjustment of patients with serious health problems.