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The importance of health psychology in healthcare

Monday, October 10th, 2022

Vector illustration of patients queueing up for a session with a psychologist - to represent importance of health psychology

A fast-growing field at the crossover point between psychology and clinical care, health psychology has much potential to change the world.

With its multi-disciplinary perspective and by focusing on mental health and wellbeing at every step, the field is capable of revolutionising how patients are dealt with throughout their healthcare journey. 

If you are a Psychology graduate looking to become a Registered Health Psychologist in the UK, you can gain Stage 1 training remotely with Ulster’s online Health Psychology Masters. 

Below we outline the importance of health psychology, along with its economic and societal benefits, in shaping the future of healthcare in the UK and beyond. 

The importance of health psychology

“Health problems are caused by a combination of factors, such as genetic predisposition (biological, behavioural and belief systems) and sociocultural context (family, social support, and cultural influences).”

– Crane, Hannibal, Psychology IB Course Companion.

Acknowledging the limitations of traditional healthcare models, health psychology favours a more holistic approach by looking at the root causes of healthcare issues and encouraging psychological solutions to prevent illnesses at an early stage.

Therefore, a holistic point of view is important to fully understand the psychological factors that play a role in health and illness. 

Reactive vs proactive healthcare 

“If a plant were wilting, we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions.”

Dr Sanah Ahsan, Clinical Psychologist. 

Whilst reactive healthcare focuses on alleviating symptoms and solving existing problems, proactive healthcare (sometimes referred to as preventative healthcare) attempts to stop those problems from happening in the first place, by changing circumstances, behaviours and/or thinking patterns. 

In order to make proactive healthcare work, early intervention is key. In some cases, prescribing medication and treatment is the only answer, but, in other cases, prevention – as advised by health psychologists – should be seen as a priority. 

How health psychology can tackle healthcare challenges

Being proactive can help healthcare providers foresee a problem before it arises, such as an increased risk of diabetes or a genetic predisposition. Health psychology can then explore ways of mitigating the risk of illness through behavioural change and encouragement of healthier habits. 

For example, it is much more efficient to lower the risk of obesity through dietary changes than to wait until obesity becomes a bigger issue and requires medical treatment and expensive hospital recovery. 

Health psychologists address their patients’ barriers to a healthy lifestyle and help them make better choices to protect their physical health in the long term. By doing so, we can better confront some of the world’s most urgent healthcare crises, including: 

  • Obesity  
  • Diabetes 
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Dementia 
  • Addiction 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Cancer  
Vector illustration of people queuing outside a doctor's office - to highlight importance of health psychology and proactive healthcare

The positive impact of health psychology 

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases, and diabetes – are the greatest cause of mortality worldwide. They account for 41 million deaths per year, including 15 million premature deaths (BMC).  

However, many of these premature deaths could be curbed by addressing ‘metabolic risk factors’ such as raised blood pressure, obesity and high/low blood sugars. Modifying unhealthy behaviours such as tobacco use, poor diet and alcohol abuse would reduce these risks and save on healthcare costs.

Health psychology examples:

  • Nutritional advice and diet planning
  • Addiction therapy
  • Post-operation rehabilitation
  • Stress-reduction therapies 

Global estimates suggest that investing in a set of cost-effective and feasible interventions, led by health psychologists, would prevent 8.1 million premature deaths and generate £270 billion in economic growth between 2018 and 2030 (BMJ). 

Start your learning journey with Ulster University 

Ulster University was named among the top 10% of UK universities for research impact in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF, 2021). The school’s Psychology department maintains a fantastic international reputation, with 100% of psychology case studies judged as outstanding or very considerable in terms of reach and significance. 

The Ulster University online Health Psychology MSc is taught 100% remotely, offering part-time flexibility for you to gain Stage 1 training without the need for a career break. 

One of just a handful of online health psychology graduate programmes accredited by the BPS, the Health Psychology MSc can be studied alongside work commitments from anywhere in the world. You’ll have 24/7 access to resources, with opportunities to interact with a global network of like-minded peers on discussion boards, social media and beyond. 

What is a health psychologist?

A health psychologist is someone qualified to give therapeutic help and advice to people who have (or are at risk of) physical illness due to poor mental health. A health psychologist’s role is to alleviate (and reduce the risk of) health problems by addressing underlying mental health issues through talk therapy, rehabilitation sessions and more. 

To find a detailed answer on this, please view our ‘What is health psychology?‘ guide.

What is the difference between health psychology and clinical psychology?

The role of a clinical psychologist is generally broader, while a health psychologist is more specialised, focusing solely on mental health problems that affect physical health and illness, such as stress, addiction and eating disorders. 

To find a detailed answer to this question, please refer to our ‘Health Psychology vs Clinical Psychology’ guide. 

How do I become a health psychologist?

There are multiple routes to becoming a health psychologist in the UK. The most common route is to complete a bachelor’s degree in Psychology (or a conversion course), followed by a Masters in Health Psychology (Stage 1 training) and finally a doctoral-level programme in the field (Stage 2 training) at a university, research institution or via a graduate scheme (i.e., with the NHS). 

Our comprehensive guide to ‘How to become a health psychologist’ covers each step in detail. 

How long does it take to become a health psychologist?

After studying Psychology at undergraduate level, it will take an additional five years to become a Registered Health Psychologist in the UK. Find a more detailed answer on question 7 of our ‘How to become a health psychologist’ guide.

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