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Health Psychology

Health Psychology


What is Health Psychology?


Recent advances in psychological, medical, and physiological research have led to a new concept regarding the maintenance of health and the development of illness.  This conceptualization 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 define the interrelation of biological, behavioral, and social factors as they 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 – physicians of every type, dentists, medical therapists - 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.  The addition of physiological and psychological elements to health maintenance adds two new areas to explore the prevention of illness.


Where, and How, the Health Psychologist Works


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 involving chronic ailments.  They can also be found in corporate environments, contributing the new dimensions to health maintenance that their discipline has introduced.


Patient treatment may include behavioral assessment, a psychological and physiological profile, clinical interviews, objective and collective personality assessment, and various other clinical and research-oriented protocols.


Treatment can take the form of stress management, relaxation therapies, biofeedback, psycho-education 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.  It is with this treatment format that the health psychologist might find himself in a corporate environment, working with employees at the request of management in an effort to reduce business-related stress.  Enlightened employers are coming to understand that the health of the employee population can be enhanced on site, and that healthy employees are more productive and loyal participants in the life of the company.


Educational Resources for Health Psychology


Health psychology is a relatively recent offshoot of psychology and it is not a fully developed course of study at all colleges and universities.  Health psychologists are required to hold a doctorate, usually in clinical psychology.  Many of those interested in this field will then pursue postdoctoral studies that specialize in health psychology.


About one third of the colleges and universities in this state offer courses in health psychology.  However many doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, social, or experimental psychology have specialized tracks in health psychology. A number of programs now exist in the United States and other countries specifically for doctoral training in health psychology.
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