A health psychologist specialises in studying the psychological factors underlying the health of both people and communities, analysing them from a cognitive, emotional, psycho-social and cultural viewpoint. Their main aim is to promote attitudes and behavioural patterns that improve well-being and quality of life on both an individual and collective level, preventing the onset of medical pathologies and disorders. They typically work for companies, organisations and institutes in the healthcare sector, such as health care agencies, hospitals, local bodies responsible for health care policies and social cooperatives, but they can also work privately at medical or sports centres. They work alongside other professionals like doctors, nurses, educators and sociologists.
To become a healthcare psychologist, the first thing to do is to get a master’s degree in psychology, pass the board examination and then be licenced in section A of the Association of Psychologists in order to work freelance. Typical subjects are clinical and dynamic psychology, health and well-being, psychology, psychobiology, developmental and educational psychology and industrial/organisational psychology. Ancillary subjects may be psychiatry, physiology, nursing and medical sciences, as well as the organisational sciences, sociology and anthropology. Given the very special nature of this profession, it is vitally important to attend training courses and internships in the welfare and health care sectors. Once again, a master’s degree or specialist postgraduate course are the best way to complete your training. It is also worth mentioning specialist postgraduate courses, which are extremely important for anybody interested in working for the National Health Service: students can specialise in clinical psychology, neuropsychology, life-cycle psychology of life cycle, health psychology and psychological assessment and consultancy. To qualify as an expert in health psychology you must specialise in health care psychology.
A health psychologist uses the resources of psychology to promote physical and mental well-being on both an individual and collective level. When working with individuals, their work is in many ways similar to that of a clinical psychologist or psychotherapist due to the focus on the deepest and most delicate aspects of inner life, most notably emotional-cognitive implications connected with illnesses. Nevertheless, the difference lies in the focus on more practical aspects, such as promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing psycho-physical disorders that impact on psychological well-being and the capacity to change unhealthy behaviour and habits. On a collective or community level, in contrast, a health psychologist may help plan welfare/healthcare policies, services or programs, plan community health campaigns, support medical-healthcare workers and contribute to the design of healthy working and living conditions. A health psychologist deals with similar subject matter to critical sociology and industrial-organisational psychology. Since health psychology deals with every aspect of mental and physical well-being, it must also consider the impact on health of social marginalisation and physically demanding work.
Health psychologists typically work for organisations and associations belonging to the National Health Service after passing an entrance examination or being awarded a consultancy contract. For example, they may work for Health Care Agencies (once known as ASLs in Italy and now as ATSs), hospitals and rehabilitation centres. Again, as regards the public sector, health psychologists can work for local bodies in charge of health policies, particularly regional and city councils. In the private sector, they may also work for medical or sports centres providing psychological consultancy. Finally, in the services sector, they may work for social cooperatives and non-profit organisations specialising in providing welfare and health care services. Health psychologists may also work freelance, providing consultancy to companies and organisations in the healthcare industry. If, on the other hand, they decide to undertake a career as a researcher, they may be involved in studies applied to concrete experience in protecting and promoting health or, alternatively, more theoretical work on the very concept of health. In any case, given their specialist realm of study and work, they will find themselves working alongside other professionals, such as doctors, epidemiologists, nurses, therapists, nutritional experts, educators and sociologists. Finally, a health psychologist may also work as a psychotherapist, but only after studying at an authorised specialist educational institute.