Health psychology is a relatively new area of professional specialization in the larger realm of psychology which traces its official roots back to the early 1970s. In response to the increasingly important role that psychologists were playing in hospital medical care, and the obvious links between mental and physical health that decades of study had established, the American Psychological Association added something called "health psychology" to its lists of official divisions within the sphere of clinical and behavioral psychology. Of course, psychology in all of its various facets is concerned with issues of health. So, why did health psychology need a separate designation within the discipline?
The answer to that question lies in the more nuanced understanding of medical treatments and disease that gained traction over the last half of the 20th century, one that, as the British Health Society explains, saw illness not just in biological and physiological terms, but also as a symptom of psychological and social factors. So, as evidence linking behavior and biology accumulated, and behavioral science became part of the physician's toolbox, psychologists and psychological theory became intertwined with the practice of medicine, and health psychology became a discrete specialty.
In this guide we'll take an in-depth look at master's degrees in health psychology, as well as the training and knowledge it takes to embark on a career in the field. We'll also highlight the various areas of specialization that have emerged within health psychology, the kinds of careers that are available, and the job outlook and earning potential that comes with earning a master's degree in health psychology.
What Does a Health Psychologist Do?
The APA answers that question with another question that offers some insight into the work of health psychologists: "Doctors diagnose illnesses and surgeons operate to cure them, but what factors contribute to our health? That's where the skills of health psychologists can help." Indeed, health psychologists confront a number of pressing questions about illness causation and the impact of various diseases. How can patients best be persuaded to follow medical advice? Get more exercise? Eat right? Make healthier life choices? Are there more effective ways to get patients to engage in the kind of preventative care measures that can prolong health and wellbeing, and reduce the overall cost of medical care?
Health psychologists are charged with designing and conducting research aimed at answering these questions. They study the psycho-social causes of disease and the behavioral patterns that can effect treatment protocols. They also work directly with patients to help them understand complicated diagnoses, and to ease them into treatments that can be difficult and even a little scary. They act as educators and counselors to patients in need and consult with other healthcare professionals. They help inform and mold public healthcare policy, working in tandem with hospitals, insurance providers, and government agencies. And they also go out into the community, developing and implementing intervention programs and working with at-risk groups to get them the medical care they need.
Who Becomes a Health Psychologist?
Health psychology is a graduate-level area of specialization that entails earning a master's or doctorate degree. The master's degree in health psychology is open to applicants who have earned a bachelor's degree and who want to go into a growing healthcare field that incorporates the theories and practices of psychology. While in some cases there are health psychology classes offered at the undergraduate level, and much of what one learns about psychological research methods, social and behavioral psychology, and other aspects of the discipline in a four-year bachelor's degree program in psychology are applicable at the master's level, a master's degree in health psychology is generally considered the minimum requirement for most jobs in the field.
The APA's Division 38, which is devoted to health psychology, recommends that undergraduates interested in pursuing a master's degree in health psychology focus on developing a, "broad psychology background (e.g. social, abnormal, cognitive neuroscience, developmental, and definitely psychobiology), but also biology, anatomy, and even a public health course if that is possible." In fact, one way to conceptualize preparation for a master's degree in health psychology is something along the lines of a marriage between a pre-med curriculum and a psychology major.
It's also worth noting, as the American Job Center Network's ONet Online emphasizes, that working in psychology requires strong interpersonal skills, an ability to clearly articulate one's thoughts in writing and oral presentation, and the kind of active listening and critical thinking skills that come with a well-rounded, four-year bachelor's degree program in the liberal arts.
What Is a Master's Degree in Health Psychology?
Like most master's degrees in psychology, the master's degree in health psychology is designed to be a two-year course of study, during which students are immersed in the clinical practices, research methodologies, and theoretical underpinnings of the discipline. These degrees don't always come by the same name: There are master's of arts and master's of science degree programs available in health psychology, and there are also master's degrees in clinical, counseling, or behavioral psychology that offer a concentration in health psychology. In addition, some of these master's degree programs fall under the heading of interdisciplinary health psychology, or biological and health psychology.
Master's in Health Psychology Concepts
- Biological, psychological, and social factors influencing health
- Effects of illness and stress
- Illness prevention
- Health promotion
- Psychological concepts and principles applied toward psychophysiological wellness, health, and immunocompetence
- Personal and environmental factors impacting health
- Psychological interventions in various contexts
- Multicultural and global perspectives regarding psychology theory, research, and practice
- Health program design, implementation, and evaluation
- History and systems of psychology
- Controlled randomized experiments
- Longitudinal studies
- Time-series designs
- Cross-sectional studies
- Case control studies
Master's programs in health psychology do differ from school to school. Some place a greater emphasis on counseling and clinical practice, while others are more focused on research in the field. Most offer internship opportunities, but that can vary, as can master's degree thesis requirements. It would be nice if there were a strict delineation between the curriculum of a typical MA and a typical MS in health psychology, but that just isn't the case. Instead, it's important to look into the requirements and the courses offered by each program individually.
Master's in Health Psychology Coursework
With that in mind, here is a chart that illustrates some of the core subjects covered in a master's degree in health psychology, beyond the general graduate-level psychological research and counseling coursework:
|Course||Areas of Study|
|Principles of Health Psychology||An overview of how psychology works in the context of physiological and medical conditions, including the behavioral aspects of preventative care, biopsychosocial approaches to patient assessment, and how diet, exercise, substance use, and other factors are related to physical and psychological wellbeing.|
|Psychobiology||How neurobiology, physiology, and genetic factors impact psychological development, cognitive function, and behavior.|
|Psychosociology||How social factors impact the psychological development of individual, and interpersonal and group relationships affect behavior, cognition, physical health.|
|Biopsychosocial Heath||A framework for psychological assessment and treatment of medical disorders that considers social and behavioral factors, as well as physical diagnoses.|
|Psychoneuroimmunology||The study of how neurological and immunological factors interact with psychology and behavior in ways that affect physical wellbeing and overall health.|
|Public Health and Healthcare Systems||Applying the quantitative methodology and statistical modeling of psychology to understanding healthcare administration and the public healthcare system.|
Specialization within the Master's Degree in Health Psychology
Health psychology is itself a subspecialty within the discipline of psychology, but it has grown to include four further areas of specialization. For the most part, the lines between these specialties aren't clearly drawn during a master's degree program. Rather, they become more relevant during doctoral and post-doctoral work in health psychology. But, as a master's degree candidate, it's good to be aware of how the knowledge and skills acquired during an MA or MS program in health psychology might lead to further study. Here's a brief description of each of the four areas of specialization:
- Clinical Health Psychology: Clinical health psychologists work in tandem with medical professionals and healthcare administrators to implement preventative care protocols, and use the tools of behavioral psychology to help patients better manage health and medical issues.
- Community Health Psychology: Community health psychologists work with other healthcare workers and social service providers in the community to promote better behavioral attitudes toward health and wellbeing. They're often included in community-wide interventions designed to combat particular psychosocial problems that lead to illness and disease.
- Critical Health Psychology: Critical health psychologists are concerned with the socioeconomic factors and other issues, including race and gender, that contribute to physical and behavioral health. They conduct research on such indicators, coordinate interventions, and help craft fairer and more equitable healthcare policies.
- Public Health Psychology: Public health psychologists create and conduct studies and other research to determine causalities between psychosocial factors and physical health in an effort to help community, educational, and governmental healthcare administrators create better programs and policies for combating illness.
Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook
Full licensure to practice as a psychologist generally requires a PhD or PsyD degree, and that is true in health psychology as well. However, a master's degree in health psychology does prepare graduates for various kinds of work in the field, usually under the supervision of a licensed health psychologist. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't keep records on health psychologists per se, so it's hard to get an exact count of how many people are currently working in the field, or how their salaries compare to those of other psychologists. But, a 2009 salary survey by the APA found, "that health psychologists working in direct human services earned an average of $80,000 per year. Many who work in large universities or health systems earn more."
The APA also notes that, "the career path for someone with a master's degree [in health psychology] often includes positions such as a research assistant or behavioral specialist." However, the expansion of the healthcare system under the Affordable Care Act has put a new emphasis on and new resources behind managing costs, providing better care, and creating more effective preventative measures for an expanding population of potential patients. This is almost certain to create greater demand for health psychologists. As the BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook notes, "Demand for psychologists in the healthcare industry is also expected to increase because their collaborative work with doctors, social workers, and other healthcare professionals provides patients with comprehensive, interdisciplinary treatments. In addition to treating mental and behavioral health issues, psychologists will be needed to work on teams to develop or administer prevention or wellness programs."
With that in mind, we'll take a brief look at the job outlook and salaries for psychologists and other healthcare workers, according to the latest BLS data, keeping in mind that health psychologists typically work in three areas: clinical and academic research; public policy administration; and medical counseling in hospitals and communities.
- Jobs in psychology are expected in increase at a rate of 12 percent through 2022, and the average annual salary for psychologists was $75,790 as of May 2015.
- The average annual salary across a broad cross-section of counselors, social workers, and other community and social service specialists, as of May 2015, was $45,310.
- Jobs in the field of social and human service assistants are expected to increase at a rate of 22 percent through 2022, and the average annual salary for social and human service assistants was $31,860 as of May 2015.
- The average annual salary for social science research assistants, as of May 2015, was $43,070.