Health psychologists help patients respond to and manage the psychological and emotional aspects of health and illness

As a health psychologist, you'll help patients with varying health issues to understand their illness and effect health-related behavioural change. You'll promote general wellbeing and a healthy lifestyle and will support patients on a range of health issues including:

  • adjusting to a serious illness, such as cancer
  • cardiac rehabilitation
  • lifestyle choices associated with poor diet and lack of exercise
  • management of diabetes or other long-term health issues
  • pain management
  • smoking cessation
  • vaccination uptake.

You can work with children and adults, either individually or in groups. You may also work with family members who are affected by a patient's illness.

You'll usually work closely with other health professionals, such as nurses and GPs, and with organisations and employers outside the NHS, who identify psychological health issues in patients.

Work can take place in a range of settings such as the NHS, primary care or private practice. You can also follow an academic or research career.

Responsibilities

As a practitioner health psychologist you'll need to:

  • identify behaviours that may damage your patients' health, for example smoking, physical inactivity and poor diet
  • explore your patients' behaviour in relation to their health/illness to identify appropriate psychological interventions that can be used to support them
  • develop interventions to address your patients' health beliefs in empowering them to develop their own sense of control over their health issues
  • encourage positive healthcare behaviours such as healthy eating, attending health checks and regular exercise
  • look at the psychological impact of illness on patients, families and carers
  • provide information and advice to a range of organisations involved in public health, such as the NHS and local authorities
  • advise health professionals on how to improve their communication with their patients.

With experience, you may also need to:

  • train and mentor trainee psychologists
  • provide clinical and professional supervision for trainees and more junior psychologists
  • manage a team including other psychologists, assistant psychologists and other health staff
  • manage, audit and develop health psychology services.

See higher education lecturer for additional responsibilities if you're employed in an academic setting.

Salary

  • Trainee health psychologists start at £32,306 (Band 6) of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. After qualification, salaries in the NHS start at £40,057, rising to £45,839 (Band 7).
  • More experienced psychologists can earn between £47,126 and £63,862 (Bands 8a and 8b).
  • Consultant health psychologist roles typically range from £65,664 to £90,387 (Bands 8c and 8d). Heads of psychology services can earn in excess of this amount.

Research and lecturing posts at universities often follow academic and related staff scales. For salary details, see the University and College Union (UCU).

Salaries in other areas can vary depending on the type of client and your level of expertise.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Health psychologists in the NHS usually work a 37.5 hour week. Outside the NHS, working hours may vary. If you're a self-employed health psychologist, you may work some evenings or weekends to suit your clients' needs.

Some health psychologists combine part-time work in academia with NHS or independent private practice work or choose to follow a full-time academic career.

What to expect

  • You may work in collaboration with other medical professionals such as dietitians, GPs, nurses, rehabilitation therapists and surgeons.
  • Jobs are available in most cities and large towns, with fewer opportunities in rural areas. Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible.
  • There are opportunities for private or clinical practice and for commercial consultancy.
  • Supervision by colleagues is important throughout your career.
  • The work can be challenging as it involves contact with many different types of people who are often distressed, but can also be rewarding.

Qualifications

To practise as a health psychologist in the UK you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC), which involves training at postgraduate level.

To begin training you'll normally need Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership (GBC), which is achieved by completing a psychology degree or conversion course accredited by The British Psychological Society (BPS). For a full list of GBC qualifying courses see the BPS Accredited Psychology Courses.

Postgraduate training is typically conducted in two stages. The first stage involves completion of a BPS-accredited Masters degree in health psychology. You'll usually need a 2:1 or above for entry on to a Masters course, but check with individual institutions as entry requirements vary. The knowledge you gain at this stage will support you in the second stage of training, where you can begin to develop your practice under supervision.

Stage 2 training involves taking either the BPS Qualification in Health Psychology Stage 2 (QHP Stage 2) or a BPS-accredited Doctorate in Health Psychology (which must be approved by the HCPC). In order to progress to stage 2, you'll need to be working in an appropriate health-related role, for example as a trainee health psychologist. Throughout your training you'll be classed as a trainee health psychologist, regardless of your area of work.

If you follow the BPS independent practice route, leading to the QHP Stage 2, you'll need to complete a minimum of two years' structured supervised practice (or the part-time equivalent) where you'll demonstrate your skills to Doctoral standards in key health psychology competencies:

  • consultancy
  • professional practice
  • psychological interventions
  • research
  • teaching and training.

Assessment is via a portfolio of evidence showing your skills in health psychology, as well as an oral exam.

If you follow the Doctorate route, you'll need to apply for a course that leads to a Doctoral qualification in health psychology and provides the equivalent of a minimum of two years full-time practice placement. As part of the course you'll undergo a supervised practice incorporating the five key health psychology competencies. Check individual courses for exact course content and assessment methods.

Both stage 2 routes lead to eligibility to apply for chartered membership of BPS, full membership of the Division of Health Psychology and entry to the HCPC register as a health psychologist.

It's also possible to take a doctoral health psychology research qualification but you will not be eligible for registration with the HCPC to practise using the protected health psychologist title (although you are eligible for chartered membership of the BPS).

For more information, see the BPS Division of Health Psychology.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • the ability to apply your knowledge of academic psychology and research to health-related problems
  • excellent communication and interpersonal skills in order to deal with people with long-standing and deep-routed health problems
  • critical thinking and analytical skills
  • self-motivation and the ability to work independently
  • teamworking skills and the ability to collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines
  • time management and organisation skills
  • a strong understanding of the profession and the role of a health psychologist, as well as an awareness of current NHS and public health issues
  • a patient and compassionate approach to work
  • emotional resilience.

Work experience

Entry on to a postgraduate course (stage 1) is becoming increasingly competitive so you're advised to get some work or shadowing experience prior to applying. While not an essential requirement for progressing onto stage 2 training, it's useful to get some work experience at stage 1.

Experience can be through paid or voluntary roles, e.g. shadowing health psychologists, working with patients with pain management issues or helping support patients with stroke rehabilitation.

You can look for work experience in places such as:

  • clinical and health centres
  • community and public health settings
  • health research units
  • public health departments.

Voluntary or paid work in other areas such as nursing, social work, care work, mental health work or services for individuals with disabilities is also useful. Check with individual institutions for the extent and type of experience they're looking for.

Experience as a research assistant is also relevant and it's helpful to have a good balance of experience in both academic and applied health areas. Getting some experience working under the supervision of a qualified health psychologist within the NHS is also valuable.

At stage 2, health psychology trainees are expected to source their own two-year supervised practice placement.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

Typical employers include the NHS and Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (HSC). However, opportunities are available in a range of professional contexts, including:

  • charities
  • community and public health settings
  • general practice
  • health research units
  • local authorities
  • local clinics and health centres
  • private hospitals
  • public health departments
  • university departments.

Health consultancies also employ health psychologists in areas such as training, research or intervention skills.

In universities, you may work in various departments such as psychology, medicine, nursing, dentistry and pharmacy, and will take on lecturing, research and supervision roles.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies may also be advertised in the local and national press and on hospital websites.

Professional development

Continuing professional development (CPD) is an integral part of your career and is an essential requirement of your continuing registration with the HCPC and chartered membership of the BPS.

This ongoing development should include a mixture of directed and self-directed activities. These include:

  • post-qualification courses, which help to develop your knowledge of different theoretical approaches
  • professional supervision
  • lecturing, teaching or giving presentations
  • attending workshops or conferences
  • topical research, writing articles or papers
  • mentoring, supervising or assessing trainees
  • development of expertise with a particular client group.

You'll need to keep an up-to-date and accurate record of your professional development activities, showing that your CPD contributes to the quality of your practice and service delivery and is beneficial to your patients.

More information can be found at the BPS Professional Development Centre.

Career prospects

Once you've qualified and have some experience, you can apply for more senior roles, building up your knowledge and experience as you progress.

Roles such as principal health psychologist, consultant health psychologist or head of a psychological service require experienced practitioners, usually with many years' experience working in applied settings. These roles include managerial and supervisory responsibilities.

There are opportunities to specialise in areas of health psychology, usually based on the type of health condition, e.g. eating disorders, drug abuse or addictive behaviours. At consultant level your workload may be quite broad, supporting multiple teams or a department. Alternatively, it may be very specific, focusing on pain management, for example.

It's also possible to follow a career as a health psychologist in academia. You're likely to spend much of your time in the first few years building up your teaching skills and experience, and developing your research profile. If based in a university setting, you may teach and supervise trainee health psychologists and other healthcare professionals. In order to progress your career, you'll need to keep an active research profile and show a willingness to take on different roles.

Some health psychologists move between types of employer, for example from applied practice to a university. Joint appointments between universities and health services are also possible.

Consultancy work is another possibility for experienced health psychologists.

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