How to become a health psychologist (plus duties and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Health psychologists are psychological professionals who specialise in helping their patients to manage stress levels and psychological well-being in relation to health and illness. They frequently work with people undergoing treatment for serious illnesses like cancer and people who may want to improve their general health through diet improvement or lifestyle changes. If you're interested in becoming a health psychologist, it's essential to know what qualifications are necessary for this role. In this article, we explore what a health psychologist is and how to become a health psychologist.

What is a health psychologist?

Before you learn how to become a health psychologist, it's essential to understand what a health psychologist is. Health psychologists work with patients to help them to understand issues relating to their physical health and change their thinking patterns, habits and lifestyles to improve their overall health. They work in various settings, including hospitals, clinics, schools and universities.

Some examples of issues that health psychologists help their patients with include smoking cessation, weight loss, serious illness, pain management, cardiac rehabilitation and chronic illness management. Health psychologists work with both children and adults, and they may work with patients on an individual basis or in groups. They often work for national hospitals and trusts, although it's also possible to become a health psychologist in private practice. Some of the most common responsibilities of a health psychologist include:

  • identifying behaviours that may hurt a patient's health

  • understanding the cause of negative behaviours and lifestyle choices

  • assessing how well a patient is coping with an illness or injury

  • discussing a patient's behaviours in relation to their health

  • developing interventions to help patients to take more control of their health

  • encouraging positive lifestyle changes

  • helping patients and their families deal with the psychological impact of their illness

  • advising health professionals on working with patients with serious illnesses

  • investigating health and illness behaviours to predict patterns

  • assessing how communication between healthcare professionals and patients impacts outcomes

  • educating patients on health and self-care

Related: How to become a chartered psychologist (with definition)

How to become a health psychologist

Here's how to become a health psychologist in five steps:

1. Get an undergraduate degree

All health psychologists have an undergraduate degree from a recognised university, usually in psychology or another related subject like health sciences. It's possible to study for an unrelated undergraduate and take a conversion course with British Psychological Society (BPS) accreditation. After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology, you have Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC). Psychology degrees are available at universities across the U.K. and overseas, with varying entry requirements for A-level grades and subjects.

Related: What are scientific methods in psychology? (With 6 steps)

2. Undergo postgraduate training

After completing your undergraduate degree in psychology, postgraduate training is the next step. The first stage of completing postgraduate training to become a health psychologist is completing a BPS-accredited Master's degree in health psychology. Universities across the U.K., including King's College London and the University of Bath, offer BPS-accredited degrees in this field. Most of these courses require a 2:1 or higher at the undergraduate level. A Master's in health psychology trains graduates in the specific issues, challenges and techniques they might face when working with patients struggling with their health.

Related: What does a cognitive psychologist do? A complete guide

3. Gain experience in health psychology

At this stage of your career, it's essential to gain experience working in health psychology or a similar field. Relevant work experience is usually necessary to proceed further with your qualifications. Experience in a health-related role, such as a trainee health psychologist, demonstrates your commitment to this career choice and shows that you understand what it's like to work in the field. It's also an effective way of improving important soft skills for health psychologists, including communication skills, listening skills and analytical skills, all of which are essential for the second stage of your postgraduate training.

Related: 14 potential career paths for a clinical psychologist

4. Complete the BPS Qualification in Health Psychology

Once you have sufficient work experience in health psychology, you may apply to study for the second stage of postgraduate training. This involves taking the BPS Qualification in Health Psychology Stage 2 (QHP Stage 2) or completing a BPS-accredited Doctorate in Health Psychology that also has approval by the HCPC. This stage requires you to already be working in a health-related role because it involves practising under supervision in a relevant role. Once you complete this qualification, apply for chartered membership of BPS and join the HCPC register as a health psychologist.

Related: A guide to psychotherapist vs. psychologist job roles

5. Apply for roles

At this stage, you're a chartered, registered health psychologist, which means that you may apply for roles as a health psychologist in hospitals, clinics and other settings. Look for health psychology jobs in your local area online and update your CV to match your most recent experience and qualifications. Write a tailored cover letter for each role and refer to the job description in the advertisement to ensure that you demonstrate all of the skills that hiring managers require. It's possible to find health psychology roles across the U.K., with a higher concentration of these roles available in cities.

What is it like to work as a health psychologist?

Most health psychologists work for national health services, while others work for private medical providers, health foundations and charities. Most health psychologists work full-time hours of around 37.5 hours per week, and working hours vary. Self-employed health psychologists often work evenings and weekends to accommodate their clients' working lives. Health psychologists frequently collaborate with other healthcare specialists, including doctors, nurses, surgeons and health psychologists who require supervision and observation at various points throughout their careers.

What skills do health psychologists have?

In addition to possessing technical expertise and psychology training, health psychologists possess several skills that allow them to carry out their duties daily. Some of the most important health psychologist skills are soft skills that enable health psychologists to communicate effectively with their patients and react sensitively when listening to distressing topics. Below are some of the most useful health psychologist skills:

Communication skills

Health psychologists possess excellent communication skills, particularly in verbal communication and listening. They're able to listen closely to what their patients tell them and understand what they are trying to communicate with you. They can also express themselves clearly, often conveying complex psychological concepts to patients with no technical background in psychology. Interpersonal skills are also key in this career path because health psychologists discuss sensitive and difficult topics, including health, weight, illness and even death, with their patients.

Related: Interpersonal communication: definitions and examples

Compassion and empathy

It's essential that health psychologists have compassion and empathy. They frequently work with people from all kinds of different backgrounds, many of whom are under large amounts of stress and undergoing deeply personal challenges. Health psychologists can consider issues from the perspectives of their patients and understand that people have different temperaments, drives, motivations and desires. Being compassionate and expressing this compassion effectively are key skills for health psychologists.

Emotional resilience

Health psychologists require a lot of emotional resilience, which enables them to deal with issues of a challenging nature daily without it affecting their mental health. It allows them to stay calm in stressful situations and to be strong and supportive to patients when they're upset. While some people are naturally more emotionally resilient than others, it's possible to learn and develop the skill of emotional resilience during your time in practice and by investing in your mental health and stability for the benefit of yourself and your career.

Related: How to build resilience (7 techniques and examples)

Self-motivation

Health psychologists are self-motivated professionals who can monitor their workloads and manage their diaries independently. Many health psychologists work with patients in several different hospitals and clinics, and it's important that they're able to manage their schedules and juggle multiple priorities at once. It also takes many years of studying and working to become a qualified health psychologist, which requires a lot of motivation, determination and ambition. It's essential that health psychologists are capable of motivating themselves to work hard without relying on external motivations.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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