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Health Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

Health Psychologist discussing the difference between clinical psychology and health psychology with Ulster students

The career options for a psychologist can seem mysterious and confusing, particularly to recent graduates looking at their next steps. Even if you have a good idea of what you want to do, understanding the job roles and which path to navigate can be challenging.

There are many specialisms and subcategories of psychology, some of which seem very similar at first glance. In this blog post we try to demystify one quite common comparison:  Health Psychology vs Clinical Psychology.

By the end of this rough guide you’ll understand what a health psychologist does, what a clinical psychologist does, and which route is right for you.

Are Health Psychology and Clinical Psychology the same?

There are many similarities between these psychological disciplines, so it’s easy to miss the subtle distinctions in their objectives, methods, and approaches. When you register with HCPC (Health & Care Professions Council), most types of psychologist roles come under the same category of “practitioner psychologist”.

According to the HCPC, both clinical and health psychologists engage in:

“the scientific study of people, the mind and behaviour…[and] attempt to understand the role of mental functions in individual and social behaviour.”

They’re both applied psychologist roles, working with patients to improve their behavioural outcomes and mental wellbeing. They also use many of the same principles and tools to achieve their aims – assessing patients and applying an understanding of human biology and behaviour to treat them.

However, clinical psychology and health psychology are not the same. The main difference lies in the perspective they approach patients from, and therefore the types of cases they each specialise in treating.

What does a Clinical Psychologist do?

In practical terms, a clinical psychologist is any qualified psychologist with an HCPC registration who works in a clinical setting. So, in theory, a health psychologist could be a type of clinical psychologist. However, this definition isn’t particularly helpful in distinguishing the roles.

More specifically, clinical psychologists are concerned with assessing and treating mental illnesses and neurological disorders. You’ll work with individuals with a variety of mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Addiction
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

You can expect to work with people of all ages, assessing their mental state and coming up with interventions to improve or overcome their conditions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Clinical psychologists might work with individuals, couples, families and can be based in hospitals, community mental health teams or local health clinics.

If you want a psychology role that focuses on reducing distress and improving mental health conditions across a wide variety of scenarios, a clinical psychology path might be the one for you.

What does a Health Psychologist do?

In contrast, health psychologists are concerned specifically with how mental health affects physical health. Health psychology is a more recent specialist area in psychological practice but it’s growing fast, with more and more health psychology job roles being advertised all the time.

The interests that a health psychologist focuses on are much more about physical health and the impacts that this has on patients’ psychological wellbeing. For instance, the day-to-day toll of having a health condition can cause a lot of stress. Preparing for, undergoing, and recovering from medical procedures can have a significant impact on a person’s anxiety and ability to cope. Health psychologists work with patients to mitigate those effects and ensure their physical wellbeing doesn’t suffer as a result.

A health psychologist will be called to advise on a range of issues, including:

  • Health anxiety
  • Pain management
  • Smoking and other addictions
  • Stress
  • Pain management
  • Weight management
  • Smoking and other addictions

Health psychologists are trained to assess these kinds of emotional and psychological effects and help patients deal with their physical conditions. They often need to understand and account for wider familial, cultural and social contexts, and advise patients on handling their individual circumstances to live healthier, happier lives.

What you’ll learn on a Health Psychology Masters degree

Hopefully, you’ll now understand what theoretically differentiates clinical psychology vs health psychology. If you have a bachelors degree in Psychology and a health psychology career feels like the path for you, there are fascinating and varied topics to study in depth during a dedicated masters course.

In our BPS accredited MSc Health Psychology programme you’ll learn:

  • Bio-behavioural mechanisms underlying health
  • Context and perspectives in health psychology
  • Theories of behaviour change applied to health-related behaviours and cognitions
  • Techniques appropriate to research
  • Skills necessary for the assessment of psychological factors relevant to health psychology

You’ll also achieve Stage 1 Training in becoming a Registered Health Psychologist.

If this sounds like the kind of online psychology degree you’d be interested in, pay a visit to our Health Psychology Masters course page. Discover if it’s the right branch of psychology for you and apply for our next intake.

If you are looking to switch careers into psychology and do not meet the entry requirements for the Health Psychology MSc, you can also consider the Psychology (Conversion) MSc (all graduates welcome to apply).

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