If you want to improve the healthcare system and you also enjoy helping people achieve a healthier lifestyle, then 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:

  • adjustment to 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 the patient's illness.

You will 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.

Responsibilities

As a health psychologist you'll need to:

  • identify behaviours that may damage your patient's health, e.g. 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 with pain and illness;
  • 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.

Salary

  • Trainee health psychologist posts are usually salaried at £26,302 (Band 6 of the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates). Some assistant health psychologist posts start at Band 5 (£21,909).
  • After qualification, salaries typically start at £31,383, rising to £41,373 (Band 7).
  • Once you have at least six years' experience, you may be able to move into more specialised roles such as principal or consultant health psychologist.
  • Salaries for consultant health psychologists range from £56,104 to £82,434 (Bands 8c and 8d), rising to between £78,629 and £99,437 for heads of psychology services (Band 9).

Salaries outside the NHS can vary depending on the type of client and your level of expertise. Research and lecturing posts at universities often follow academic and related staff scales.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Health psychologists in the NHS usually work a 37.5 hour week. If you're working 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.

What to expect

  • Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible. Opportunities for private or clinical practice and for commercial consultancy are also available.
  • Within the NHS, the number of health psychology vacancies continues to rise. These roles are typically deployed under local commissioning services.
  • Ongoing supervision by colleagues is typical and a standard requirement of the regulatory body responsible for all psychological practice, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
  • The work can be challenging as it involves contact with many different types of people who are often distressed.

Qualifications

To practice as a health psychologist in the UK you must be registered with the 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 will 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 a BPS-accredited Doctorate in Health Psychology or the BPS Qualification in Health Psychology Stage 2 (QHP Stage 2). In order to progress to stage 2, you will need to be working in an appropriate health-related role, for example as a trainee health psychologist. Throughout your training you will be classed as a trainee health psychologist, regardless of your area of work.

If you choose to follow the Doctorate route, you'll need to apply for a course accredited by the HCPC. These courses lead to a doctoral qualification in health psychology and provide the equivalent of a minimum of two years full-time practice placement. For a full list of qualifying courses, see the BPS Accredited Psychology Courses. As part of the course you'll undergo a supervised practice incorporating the five key health psychology competencies:

  • consultancy;
  • generic professional (psychology) skills;
  • planning and managing psychological intervention;
  • research;
  • teaching and training.

You will need to evidence these competencies in at least two applied settings, e.g. hospital work or work in a community setting, and will also need to complete a research dissertation.

Alternatively, you can follow the BPS independent practice route, leading to the QHP Stage 2. You will need to undertake supervised practice, during which you will develop a portfolio of evidence showing your skills in health psychology. This route takes a minimum of two years full-time experience and is formally assessed through examination of your portfolio.

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

Although there is 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:

  • 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, and 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 of progression 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

Many health psychologists are employed by NHS England, NHS Scotland, NHS Wales or Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (HSC). Opportunities are available in a range of professional contexts, including:

  • charities;
  • community and public health settings;
  • general practice;
  • health consultancies;
  • hospitals;
  • local clinics and health centres;
  • university departments.

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. They offer a range of professional development opportunities and a CPD Approval Scheme for externally provided CPD.

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.

You would generally start your career as a health psychologist 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 could be quite broad, supporting multiple teams or a department. Alternatively, it could be very specific, focusing on pain management, for example.

It's also possible to follow a career 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.