What Does a Health Psychologist Do?

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Abstract illustration of human brain as an iceberg symbolizing the complex and often hidden factors that health psychologists analyze.

Health Psychology emerged as a new branch of psychology in the early 1970s, thanks to some pioneering work from Joseph Matarazzo. Matarazzo began studying psychology and behavioral health shortly after serving in the U.S. military during World War II. During his studies, Matarazzo focused on the intersection of health and psychology, and he studied what compelled people to make decisions even when those choices negatively affected their health.

Matarazzo fully laid the groundwork for health psychology in a research paper published in American Psychologist in 1982 titled Behavioral Health’s Challenge to Academic, Scientific, and Professional Psychology. His paper argued that the amount spent on healthcare could be reduced if people were guided to make better decisions regarding their wellbeing. In it, he wrote that $212.9 billion (as of 1979) in total annual health expenditures in the U.S. were a direct result of decisions people made. Some of the decisions included smoking tobacco, abusing alcohol and drugs, and ingesting high levels of salt and cholesterol in food and drinks.

Today, Matarazzo’s proposal to reduce healthcare expenditures is still relevant. As of 2016, the total annual health expenditures in the U.S. had risen to $3.3 trillion, or $10,348 per person. Inflation, the growth of pharmaceuticals, and the rising cost of life-saving treatment have contributed to the increased costs, which has resulted in health psychology becoming more prevalent. The overall cost of healthcare may have grown but making smart health decisions will ultimately reduce expenditures by avoiding lengthy hospital stays, for example.

What is a Health Psychologist?

The American Psychological Association defines health psychology as the examination of “how biological, social, and psychological factors influence health and illness.” Though it’s a broad field with many subfields, there are four main specializations within health psychology:

  1. Clinical: Treats individuals by considering the affect their behaviors and lifestyle choices have on overall health.
  2. Community: Studies the factors that impact health in communities. These can include the prevalence (or lack thereof) or green or open spaces, pollution, crime, and more.
  3. Occupational: Studies the impact jobs can have on the overall health of individuals.
  4. Public: Examines public and government health policies to determine their impact.

Regardless of specialization, the overarching goal of health psychology is to educate and treat a patient’s or community’s mental and emotional health. There are many factors, both internal and external, that impact health. Some factors that influence our health decisions include:

  • Biological: Genetics and biology, such as age and family health history, impact lifestyle and health choices. Older adults are more likely to contract illnesses or require a longer recovery time span than young people. Inherited diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia and hemophilia, require patients to make lifestyle changes to maintain a healthy state.
  • Social: Where patients live impacts how they live. Exposure to crime and violence can deter people from spending active time outside, which could result in a sedentary lifestyle. Oppositely, excessive time spent in violent area can increase the likelihood of physical injury.
  • Psychological: Psychological factors have been known to cause a psychosomatic disorder, or “a physical disease that is thought to be caused, or made worse, by mental factors.” There are a wide range of illnesses and diseases that can be affected by mental illnesses, including psoriasis, high blood pressure, and heart problems. It’s well-known that chronic stress can trigger physical symptoms, such as headaches and muscle pain. Emotional eating would also fall into the category of psychosomatic disorders as it’s a temporary fix for an external aspect, whether that’s in response to stress or as a reward for accomplishing a task.

Health psychologists study all possible factors to determine a connection between a patient’s health and the choices made. Once a connection is determined, psychologists then form a treatment plan, which could include interventions and therapy. Both interventions and therapy involve educating patients about the consequences of their health issues and how psychological factors can influence their health.

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Health Psychologist Salary and Career Requirements

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists earn a salary that ranges from $75,000 to $100,000, depending on where they work. Those who work for the government reported earning $95,000 per year, one of the highest wages in the field. The salaries at hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services, and schools followed closely.

At a minimum, psychologists are required to have a bachelor’s degree, although most go on to pursue a master’s. There are many advantages to pursuing a master’s, including the ability to sit for processional counselor licensure exams, a pay raise, and specialization in a field. Specialization within the psychology profession, such as becoming a health psychologist, helps equip those psychologists to better treat patients suffering from psychosomatic disorders. In addition to educational requirements, most states require practicing psychologists to have a license.

The BLS projected psychology will grow 14 percent by 2026, which will add 23,000 jobs to the work force. The demand will continue to grow as people turn to psychologists for treatment; the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses found in a study that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S., or nearly 44 million adults, experience mental illness in a given year.

Start Your Journey with King University

Every day, health psychologists make a positive difference in the lives of their patients and community. Make a difference in your own way and start your path to becoming a psychologist with King University’s online BS in psychology. Our program will teach you essential knowledge and skills in psychology, communication, critical thinking, research, writing, and more.

Once you graduate from King University, you’ll be able to apply your knowledge of sociocultural diversity and psychological behaviors in your careers. Our online courses are the same courses with comparable instruction as those on campus, but the flexible format allows you to balance your education with your busy life. You can complete the major coursework of the online bachelor’s degree from King University in as little as 16 months.