What are Health Psychologists and how to become one

Health psychologists are mental health professionals who have particular expertise in exploring the connection between physical and mental states; their approach may be described as biopsychosocial. They serve a population that has physical problems or is at risk.

Often health psychologists are clinicians — they work directly with individuals. They can also be researchers. Among the questions they explore are how psychosocial influences affect the immune system and how psychological and cultural influences promote compliance with health regimes. Division 38 of the American Psychological Association, which offers resources to health psychologists, notes that current areas of research include genetics, immunology, and neurology. To see the most current research, one can browse the Health Psychology journal (http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/hea/index.aspx).

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Health psychologists may be employed at hospitals, outpatient centers, or research settings. Division 38 notes they are well-suited to combined academic and clinical settings. They often work collaboratively with healthcare professionals in other disciplines.

Health psychologists may focus on particular diseases, for example AIDS, or on particular populations. Health psychologists who work with and research children are known as pediatric psychologists.

Education and Training

Health psychologists have education at the doctoral level. It is possible to begin to explore the health psychology field, though, as an undergraduate (http://www.health-psych.org/documents/ETfaqs0511Final.pdf). Division 38 reports that a third of universities offer courses in the discipline and that public health courses also provide a good foundation. Interested students can begin seeking research opportunities at this level; they can involve themselves by joining Psi Chi or other psychology associations.

Grand Canyon University (GCU) offers a variety of Master’s in Psychology programs modeled after the standards and recommendations set by the American Psychological Association with emphases in: Forensic Psychology, General Psychology, GeroPsychology, Health Psychology, Human Factors Psychology, Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Life Coaching. Three Bachelor’s in Psychology programs are also offered. Click here to learn about GCU and their programs.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers online Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology programs with several emphases to select from as well as a CACREP accredited online Master’s in Counseling. Click here to learn about SNHU and their programs.

Click Here to learn more about psychology education options based on your current educational attainment.

However, the real training takes place at the graduate level — and afterward. There are a number of universities that offer specialized tracks in health psychology; typically they are offered as a concentration within a clinical or counseling psychology program. Those who are interested in pure research may explore experimental psychology programs.

A student who does not have the opportunity to enroll in a dedicated health psychology program can still seek out mentors. Training director Bruce Rybarczyk tells APA members that doing a practicum rotation in health psychology can increase one’s chances of being accepted into an internship program in this specialty. Students should call attention to relevant clinical hours at both the master’s and doctoral levels.

Clinical psychology doctoral degree programs require a year of internship (or the part time equivalent). Most states require a year of postdoctoral experience. The most specialized training typically occurs during the postdoctoral years. Opportunities are funded by organizations as diverse as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Veterans Administration.

The Council of Clinical Health Psychology Training Programs has a list of internship and postdoctoral programs http://www.cchptp.org/. Division 38 also maintain a list of clinical and nonclinical training programs (http://www.health-psych.org/LandingEducation.cfm). Students may also want to consult the APA list of research competencies.

In some cases, health psychologists may be eligible for loan repayment programs.


Clinical health psychologists are state licensed. In most cases, it is a generic psychologist license, though professionals are expected to practice only in those areas where they have sufficient knowledge and training. In addition to obtaining formal training, licensed psychologists must pass a national examination, the EPPP.

Board certification in the specialty area can be a career enhancement. The candidate will need postgraduate experience in clinical health psychology. The requirement can be met in as little as a year if the individual does a clinical health psychology fellowship that is accredited by the APA or the Canadian Psychological Association (http://www.abpp.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3394).

Other professional resources include Division 17 (counseling health psychology and Division (pediatric psychology).

Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected 22% growth in jobs for health service psychologists (broadly defined to include clinical, counseling, and school psychologists) over the 2010 to 2020 decade. Division 38 reports that job prospects should be good for the health psychology specialty.