Health psychology is concerned with the intersection of physical health with psychological and behavioral processes. Medicine and psychology have always had a symbiotic relationship, and health psychology highlights the impact of psychological aspects on physical conditions. Health care providers have noted that understanding mind/body connections empowers the patient to make better choices for their own well-being. Health psychologists advocate for patient engagement with their own treatment plan. As such, health psychologists can play various roles.
1. Community Health Advocate
Community health is public health at the grassroots level. A community-focused health psychologist studies community issues and how they affect residents of the area. Designing and implementing community-level interventions to prevent diseases or counteract existing ones will be part of your functions as a community health psychologist. This job is one of great importance in disease prevention and intervention to minimize the spread of communicable diseases, which is typically studied at the community level. You may find that collaborating with federal, international and non-profit organizations is routine for a community health advocate.
2. Public Health Expert
Public health experts address health issues on the population level. These psychologists study the pyschosocial aspects of disease prevention and management and formulate interventions when necessary. Some interventions may focus on demographic groups such as at-risk youth, pregnant women or children whose ages fall into a pre-defined range. As a public health psychologist, you will have many opportunities to work with epidemiologists, geneticists, nutritionists and other health care professionals.
3. Wellness Expert
Psychological health impacts the human physical condition. As a wellness expert, you will guide patients toward making life-sustaining choices. You are an advocate for healthy living, but your tasks will focus on individuals and small groups. As a wellness expert, your goal is to promote healthy well-being by initiating behavioral changes in patients that would ultimately lead to better health. Health psychologists play a crucial role in disease prevention by counseling patients on basic matters such as hand washing and other hygienic practices, diet and nutrition information and pregnancy support. Prescreening for diseases, promoting immunizations and getting adequate nutrition are just some of the tasks of a wellness expert. Health psychologists address the quality-of-life issues of terminally-ill patients, adjustment issues for those affected by post-traumatic stress as well as collaborate with other professionals on suicide prevention programs.
4. Health Researcher
Health policies are data-driven, making it critical to generate accurate measures of population changes, occurrence of diseases and the impact of interventions. If you have a good grasp of biostatistics with a background in health psychology, research is your niche. Health psychologists are investigators, studying the effects of positive mental attitude in disease prevention or mitigation. Likewise, it is important to observe the flip side: how well-being or ill health influences a patient’s psycho-social condition.
5. Educator and Trainer
Health psychologists make good teachers because many of the tasks have to do with interacting with patients and persuading them to think and behave in a certain way. You may also be asked to train your peers in matters such as encouraging smoking cessation, healthy weight loss programs and healthy eating. Health psychologists train other health professionals to communicate effectively especially under stresful conditions. Breaking bad news to families requires special communication skills that should be empathetic, supportive and informative at all times.
Division 38 of the American Psychological Association is focused solely on health psychology, emphasizing the importance of investigating the effects of psychological and behavioral issues on patients’ health and well-being. As a health psychologist, you will have many opportunities to advocate for health issues. Working directly with patients, you can empower them to take charge of their own health starting with choosing to be healthier.