How to Become a Health Psychologist

What Does Health Psychology Involve?

The field of health psychology deals with the behavioral, mental, emotional, and social factors that are related to physical illness. These factors may cause a physical illness or be exacerbated by a physical illness. In this regard, health psychology is concerned less with the actual illness itself, and more with the person and the biopsychosocial factors as it pertains to an existing or potential ailment.

For example, a health psychologist might focus on developing a pain management program for a cancer patient in order to promote an improved emotional state. Services might also be carried out in the form of providing stress-reduction techniques to patients and their families so they can more effectively cope with the stressors of a terminal illness. In fact, many health psychology interventions focus on reducing stress for patients while a host of other interventions take a preventative focus.


The manner in which health psychologists deliver services varies. On the one hand, health psychology is concerned with how individuals who are physically ill cope with that illness on a mental and emotional level. At the same time, health psychology is also concerned with promoting positive health behaviors to prevent illness in the first place. This may take place on a macro level, in the form of devising a campaign to inform children about the dangers of smoking or teen drinking.

Health psychologists might also work at a micro level, such as with a family to explain the dietary changes necessary to help prevent the development of diabetes if a family history of that disease exists. The delivery of services will depend in part on the employment setting of the health psychologist. Many health psychologists work in hospitals, where they tend to operate with individuals and families. However, many government agencies employ health psychologists to devise policy and health promotion materials.

With roots in behavioral medicine, which studies the interaction between behavior, biology, and the environment, health psychology has evolved into one of the most rapidly developing fields of behavioral studies and treatment. As concern about prevention of illness has grown over the last three decades, health psychology has exploded in popularity in the United States and abroad.

Among the 56 divisions of the American Psychological Association, health psychology is now the sixth largest, despite being established less than 40 years ago. Such popularity has been experienced in the Health Psychology Divisions of the British Psychological Society and the European Health Psychology Society as well.

What Does a Health Psychologist Do?

The area of health psychology is mainly concerned with health matters across a range of different groups of the public, working to better understand problems and initiate programs to help reduce them. There are essentially four specialist professions for health psychologists:

  • Public health psychologists – working with governments, public health psychologists may be involved in the development of public health campaigns or in policies regarding health.
  • Community health psychologists – these individuals are concerned with community health. They may focus on problem areas of disease or health issues within a specific community, work to identify why these issues exists and what processes can be put in place to combat them.
  • Occupational health psychologists – sometimes working with individuals and sometimes at the level of organizational policy, the ultimate aim of psychologists in this specialty is to improve the impact someone’s job has on their physical health. Companies often employ them to assess their workplaces for possible improvements to increase happiness levels and therefore productivity of staff.
  • Clinical health psychologists – the work of this specialty is on a more individualistic basis, assessing how behavior and lifestyle choices affect an individual’s health before working with them to change problems in these areas for a positive impact upon physical health. They may also look to use psychological techniques to help patients deal with health concerns (e.g. coping with pain, coping with a chronic condition etc)

Whilst the roles of these specialties vary, the general principles are the same.

  • Identify problem areas.
  • Use psychological theories to promote reduction of behaviors which are harmful to health (e.g smoking).
  • Use psychological theories and interventions to promote positive behaviors and primary prevention of health conditions (e.g exercise).
  • Focus on delivery of healthcare, improving communication to the public about health related matters.

Health psychologists across all disciplines may also be involved in research to further knowledge about the field – which techniques work best to improve positive behaviors, which work best to reduce negative behaviors etc.

Why Do We Need Health Psychologists?

Health psychologists work with a multidisciplinary team to treat a person. Patients trying to normalize their weight or control diabetes can need more than doctors, dieticians, and trainers lecturing them on eating healthful foods instead of empty calories. If those empty calories are filling a psychological need, then a health psychologist is needed to discuss emotional issues keeping patients from achieving their physical health goals.

Patients in rehabilitation with the loss of limbs suffer from emotional trauma that can’t be seen as readily as their physical damage, but they need good emotional health to be able to learn to cope with their physical limitations. Health psychologists on the team can provide a good sounding board for patients having to learn new physical coping strategies while dealing with the emotional components of loss.

What are the Requirements to Become a Health Psychologist?


Education for a health psychologist begins with a baccalaureate degree. Universities offering bachelor’s degrees in health psychology include Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, Massachusetts.

Bastyr University requires health psychology students to complete two years of general education before beginning their major courses. During their junior and senior years health psychology majors take courses in psychology, sociology health, spirituality, healing, and research methods. Students graduate with a Bachelor of Science prepared for graduate school.

The Bachelor of Science in health psychology at Jefferson College of Health Sciences consists of 127 semester units. Sixty units must be completed in health psychology, 64 units are required in other psychology courses, and students must complete 3 units of education courses. The school’s catalog lists twelve basic goals for students: acquire basic knowledge in psychology, apply knowledge to research and analysis of findings, approach problems with the scientific method, apply learning to solving population health problems, behave ethically with respect for differing opinions, understand psychological and social impacts upon health, be able to apply principles of behavioral change for healthy lifestyle, become eligible for work or graduate school, and demonstrate cultural sensitivity and a lifelong love of learning.

Related: What is the Difference Between Health Psychology and Medical Psychology?

The course of study leading to a bachelor’s degree in health psychology from Massachusetts College of Health Sciences consists of 124 units. Fourteen units are in health psychology. Other courses consist of general education, general psychology, research methods, and other healthcare studies.

Before deciding upon a university future students should study college catalogs and speak to faculty advisers to find a university with either a formal major in health psychology or courses dealing with the subject.

After earning a baccalaureate degree graduates progress to Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs in graduate school. Apart from specialized doctoral programs in health psychology, many universities offer doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, social, or experimental psychology with a specialization in health psychology. Candidates for doctoral degrees usually get experience as students in clinical settings as well as conducting original research. For their research projects students enlist the help of a faculty adviser and a faculty committee to guide them in designing, carrying out, and evaluating original studies. Students choose a problem in health psychology and apply their knowledge and skills to solving it. After gathering data, analyzing it, and interpreting it, the doctoral candidate writes a dissertation and presents it to his or her faculty committee. If the committee finds the dissertation worthy the student is admitted to the community of psychologists.

A wide range of universities offering studies leading to a doctorate in health psychology is available. Some of them include the University of Colorado in Denver, the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, the University of Pittsburgh, North Central University, the University of Missouri in Kansas City, East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, the University of Florida in Gainesville, and many others.

Getting a License

After earning a doctorate in health psychology the psychologist is ready to apply to his or her state board of psychology for a license to practice. States, territories, and provinces require candidates to show proof of having a doctoral degree from an accredited university. In addition most boards require the candidate to pass the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP). In addition boards may require other tests, such as examinations on jurisprudence for a particular state.

Going to Work

Health psychologists have a wide range of possibilities for practice. One way is to go into private practice seeing individuals wanting to make healthy lifestyle choices. Hospitals are also a good place to help with lifestyle changes in patients who want to prevent serious illness or who need to make changes because of existing health problems. Whatever choice you make, health psychology can be a rewarding way to make a difference in peoples’ lives.

What is the Average Salary of a Health Psychologist?

According to the American Psychological Association health psychologists, working in direct human services, on average earned $80,000 per year. According to the BLS, psychologists working in general medical and surgical hospitals on average earned $90,160 per year in 2020.

Where Does a Health Psychologist Work?

A health psychologist generally works in the following environments:

  • Hospitals
  • Health care clinics
  • Academic institutes
  • Private companies
  • Community health services
  • Pain management centers
  • Public health agencies
  • Specialized health care programs
  • Private practice / independents medical units
  • Substance abuse recovery facilities and rehabilitation centers

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