If you're passionate about improving the healthcare system and enjoy helping people achieve a healthier lifestyle, a career as a health psychologist may be for you

Health psychologists help patients of all ages and with varying psychological or physical health issues respond to and manage the psychological aspects of their illness. This can include:

  • 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.

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 applied 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 patient's health, for example smoking, physical inactivity and poor diet
  • encourage positive healthcare behaviours such as healthy eating, attending health checks and regular exercise
  • explore patient behaviour to identify appropriate psychological interventions that can be used to support your patient
  • develop interventions to address your patient's health beliefs in empowering them to develop their own sense of control over their health issues
  • 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 doctors on how to improve their communication with their patients.

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

Salary

  • Trainee health psychologists start at £26,565 (Band 6) of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. After qualification, salaries in the NHS start at £31,696, rising to £41,787 (Band 7).
  • More experienced psychologists can earn between £48,514 and £58,217 (Bands 8a and 8b).
  • Consultant clinical psychologist roles typically range from £56,665 to £83,258 (Bands 8c and 8d). Heads of psychology services can earn in the region of £79,415 to £100,431 (Band 9).

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

  • Jobs are available in most cities and large towns, with fewer opportunities in rural areas.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible.
  • You'll be able to find 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 accredited 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 the five 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.

Although there's no central funding for the MSc or stage 2 courses in England and Wales, there is an NHS-funded stage 2 training scheme available in Scotland. See Health Psychologists in Training for details.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • the ability to apply your knowledge of academic psychology and research to health-related problems
  • the capacity to be critical and analytical and to work in a self-motivated, independent way
  • excellent communication and interpersonal skills in order to deal with people with long-standing and deep-routed health problems
  • the ability to collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines
  • 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.

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 if you 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.

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.

Employers

Typical employers include the NHS and Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (HSC). However, opportunities are available in a wide 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:

Professional development

Continuing professional development (CPD) as a health psychologist is an essential part 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. You'll need to:

  • keep a continuous, up-to-date and accurate record of your professional development activities
  • show that your professional development practices are a mixture of learning activities relevant to current or future practice
  • make sure that your CPD has contributed to the quality of your practice and service delivery
  • ensure that your ongoing training benefits the service user.

Activities can include a mixture of presenting at and attending conferences, undertaking research, involvement in a committee and taking further post-qualification courses. It's also important to undertake personal psychological counselling to enhance your professional practice.

Training and development opportunities can be found via the BPS Professional Development Centre.

Career prospects

Career prospects for qualified health psychologists continue to grow, although demand varies depending on your geographical region, the number of jobs available in each specialist area and the popularity of particular fields.

As a practitioner, you will generally start your career as a trainee or an assistant health psychologist. With experience you can progress to more senior roles before moving on to principal health psychologist or consultant health psychologist. These roles require experienced practitioners, usually with many years' experience working in applied settings, and 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.